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Thai ‘Red Shirt’ firebrand appointed to Cabinet

Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) – A firebrand ‘Red Shirt’ leader charged with terrorism over the movement’s 2010 protests was appointed Wednesday to Thailand’s Cabinet, and a second appointee is a businesswoman blacklisted from certain U.S. financial transactions.

The new deputy agriculture minister is Nattawut Saikua, a stirring orator who was one of the core leaders of the protesters whose two-month occupation of downtown Bangkok ended with a deadly military crackdown. He is seen as a top loyalist of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a lightning rod in Thailand’s political divide who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej formally approved 10 new appointments and six transfers of ministers Wednesday in a Cabinet reshuffle.

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 Shinawatra, 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.

Another appointment sparked unexpected controversy.

Nalinee Thaveesin, who has been Thailand’s trade representative, was named office minister. Local newspapers reported Wednesday that the U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 named her a crony of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, froze any potential U.S. assets and banned U.S. citizens from doing business with her.

The U.S. described her as facilitating financial, real-estate, and gem-related transactions for Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, and other Zimbabweans under similar bans. Nalinee has previously denied business ties to Mugabe’s family.

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.

Yingluck’s government came to power with a burst of enthusiasm last year after a sweeping election victory gave it a parliamentary majority, but it suffers from the perception that it lacks direction, a point underlines by its fumbling handling of last year’s devastating floods.

She has been accused of serving mainly as a proxy of her brother, and critics says the appointments reflect that. Her government recently restored Thaksin’s passport, which had been revoked by the previous government.

Many Thaksin allies were purged from power after the 2006 coup, but have come back into prominence since Yingluck took power in August. Several Red Shirt leaders were elected to Parliament as candidates in her political party.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)