Thailand’s prime minister yesterday defended her appointment of a Cabinet minister who is on a US blacklist owing to alleged business links to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Nalinee Taveesin, named minister to the prime minister’s office this week, had her assets frozen by the US in 2008 on accusations that she was a “crony” providing financial and logistical support to the Mugabe regime.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra insisted to reporters that Nalinee’s appointment was “in line with the Constitution.”
Nalinee was described by the US Department of the Treasury in November 2008 as a businesswoman who facilitated a number of financial, real-estate and gem-related transactions of behalf of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
“Ironically, Nalinee Taveesin has participated in a number of initiatives on corruption and growth challenges in Africa and Southeast Asia while secretly supporting the kleptocratic practices of one of Africa’s most corrupt regimes,” a Treasury statement said at the time.
The action led to the freezing of Nalinee’s assets within US jurisdiction and a ban from financial or commercial transactions with US citizens.
Nalinee, previously a Thai trade representative, told the Bangkok Post daily that she had known the Mugabes for more than a decade, but denied she had ever had a business relationship with them.
“I have never traded in gemstones,” she was quoted as saying by the paper. “I have never brought diamonds in for sale. I am friends with the presidents of many countries. This [is] a case of guilt by association.”
Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, a spokesman for the opposition Democrat Party, said: “Even though the Constitution does not ban ministers who are on a blacklist, the government should have morals.”
The US and the EU sanctions on Zimbabwe include travel bans and asset freezes on Mugabe and members of his inner circle, who are accused of seriously undermining democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Wednesday’s Cabinet reshuffle also promoted Nattawut Saikuar, a leader of the “Red Shirt” protest movement who faces terrorism charges, to the post of deputy agriculture minister, drawing further criticism from the opposition.
He is seen as a top loyalist of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a lightning rod in Thailand’s political divide who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin lives in exile to avoid serving his prison sentence for a corruption conviction, and his many critics believe the current government, led by his sister Yingluck, is making it a priority to void his sentence to allow him to come home.
The Red Shirts were largely Thaksin supporters, and his critics blame Nattawut and other movement leaders for protest-related violence. About 90 people died in clashes and the final military crackdown in May 2010.
The terrorism charges against Red Shirt leaders, which have not yet come to trial, involve violent attacks on security forces by armed men alleged to be Red Shirt affiliates and several dozen arsons committed during the crackdown.
Prior to joining the Red Shirts, Nattawut was a deputy government spokesman under a previous pro-Thaksin government.
The new defense minister is Sukumpol Suwanatat, who had been transport minister. He becomes the liaison to the military, whose relationship with the government is uneasy because its leaders remain antagonistic to Thaksin and his allies. Sukompol was a senior air force officer with ties to Thaksin.