In the wake of PM Yingluck’s recent cabinet reshuffle (well, Thaksin’s recent cabinet reshuffle, but we’ll get to that…), two names have been in the news. One is the previously little known Nalinee Taveesin, promoted to be one of PM’s new Office Ministers responsible for integrating and coordinating international trade, and the other is the much-better known red-shirt “firebrand” (literally), Natthawut Saikua, the new Deputy Minister for…Agriculture, of all things.
First, the lady. Controversy has swirled around Nalinee from day 1 due to the small matter of her being on the US Treasury Department blacklist because of her apparent business dealings with Robert Mugabe, arguably Africa’s most heinous dictator, a man with a track record of using violence and murder against his opponents.
Much has already been written about Nalinee, her alleged business ties to Mugabe and his wife, the implications of her being on theUSblacklist and her refusal to admit any wrongdoing or resign to spare the nation any further controversy and embarrassment. Beyond those issues, the most interesting questions are who chose her for this new post and why?
One guess is that Nalinee was hand-picked by Thaksin himself (as is probably the case with a number of new appointees) precisely because of her special African “experience.” Since his self-imposed exile, Thaksin has been involved in a number of ventures on the continent, as part of the ongoing expansion of his business empire. A recent article that discussed Thaksin’s dubious role in a failed South African mining venture, concluded that “Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand’s most influential and controversial business and political figures and a fugitive from Thai justice, is said to be looking increasingly to the African continent to build his already considerable fortune.”
Who’s better to help build this fortune and explore similar opportunities – as a “trade representative” - than a woman who, if the US allegations are true, is definitely not afraid to get her hands dirty? Among other things, Mugabe has been accused by critics of using conflict gems to finance his human rights abuses; Nalinee, in turn, stands accused by the US of facilitating “gem-related transactions” on behalf of the Mugabes. That has been enough of an embarrassment for the Thai government that even members of the ruling Pheu Thai party have called on Nalinee to resign. Her steadfast refusal raises the question as to what influential person is supporting her – is it Thaksin himself who’s got her back?
In fact, the Nalinee fiasco raises a rather nasty question: Exactly what role have conflict gems played in bankrolling Thaksin’s various political activities in Thailand? Did blood diamonds help to pay for the 2010 red shirt rallies, other UDD and Pheu Thai activities – and even the party’s 2011 election campaign? If they did, what does that mean for Thai politics? And what does it mean when a shady operator like Nalinee can enjoy such a prominent role in the current Thai government – or did someone slip up, and the mistake will be fixed Thaksin-style: she’ll be “reshuffled” out of the current cabinet in 6 months’ time?
In Part 2, we take a look at Natthawut Saikua, whose appointment to a cabinet-level position raises a simple and fundamental question: Does a charge of terrorism have any meaning inThailand?