BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai Cabinet member under 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 has expressed dismay, questioning whether the appointment 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 according to the agency's website is responsible for promoting the "unique and noble values that distinguish Thailand."
Nalinee has said she knows Mugabe and his wife socially but has no business dealings with them.
The government office aims to promote national values among Thais, such as the significance of the nation, religion and monarchy. It produces documentaries and music and pamphlets about Thailand's king, as well as organizing events for Buddhism Week.
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 department said at the time.
The sanctions freeze any potential U.S. assets and ban 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 news 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, deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics say the current government is stacked with Thaksin's political and business allies and call Yingluck a proxy for her brother.
Deputy government spokesman Anusorn Eiamsa-ard defended Nalinee as "a person of great expertise and experience," saying she had been thoroughly vetted before being named to the Cabinet. He said she has tried to explain herself to U.S. authorities and dismissed the blacklisting as "one-sided."