BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai Cabinet member who was the target of U.S. sanctions for alleged business deals with Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe is now in charge of promoting Thailand's national image.
Nalinee Taveesin, previously Thailand's trade representative, was named a Cabinet minister in the Prime Minister's Office during last week's reshuffle of Yingluck Shinawatra's government.
The opposition expressed dismay over the appointment, questioning whether it violates the Thai constitution's ethics code for lawmakers.
Undeterred, Yingluck's office announced Tuesday that Nalinee's duties would include overseeing the National Identity Office, which is responsible for promoting the "unique and noble values that distinguish Thailand."
The U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 named Nalinee a crony of Mugabe and said she had "facilitated a number of financial, real-estate and gem-related transactions" on behalf of Mugabe's wife and other figures in Zimbabwe.
"Ironically, Nalinee Taveesin has participated in a number of initiatives on corruption ... in Africa and Southeast Asia while secretly supporting the kleptocratic practices of one of Africa's most corrupt regimes," the Treasury Department said at the time.
It froze any potential U.S. assets and banned American citizens from doing business with her.
A former senator and advisor to the Commerce Ministry, Nalinee also holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University, according to her website. She also served on the board of directors for several Thai companies.
Seeking to calm the criticism, Nalinee called a press conference over the weekend and said that she met Mugabe and his wife during an official visit to Thailand in 2002. On subsequent visits, she had "social relations" with the couple but "no business transactions at all."
"I never thought a friendship could have had such a tremendous impact on my life, especially when I stepped into the political arena," she said.
Nalinee is a member of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, which is led by Yingluck and closely allied to her brother, the deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics say the current government is stacked with Thaksin's political and business allies and call Yingluck a proxy for her brother.