Thailand's "Iron Lady" pressured to leave key post after exposing government corruption

The biggest problem for Jaruvan Maintaka, dubbed Thailand's "Iron Lady," is that she knows too much about corrupt politicians, shady tycoons and multimillion dollar rip-offs. And that may well cost her the job as the country's first auditor-general.

She's already been locked out of her office and had her salary frozen, but Jaruvan refuses to resign unless King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorses the government's nomination for a replacement. In a move with few precedents, the revered constitutional monarch hasn't signed off on the nomination.

The case has heightened political tensions, sparked debate about possible rifts between the government and Royal Palace and focused the spotlight on massive corruption in and around the regime of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Jaruvan's tenacity in going after big-time crooks has become the stuff of legend," The Nation newspaper wrote recently. "With only half of her term gone she has amassed a menagerie of adversaries from vested interests to corrupt politicians and in the process became a target for elimination."

The 58-year-old civil servant was appointed in 2001 to head the new auditor-general's office, an independent body created in accordance with the reformist 1997 Constitution to track state financial transactions and spot possible corruption.

Initially viewed as a "paper tiger," she set about her job with aggressiveness and a razor-sharp intellect. An MBA graduate from Michigan State University, she gained a reputation for outspokenness and what she jokingly describes as male-like behavior attributed to being the eldest sibling and thus treated like a boy by her father.

A devout Roman Catholic in this predominantly Buddhist country, Jaruvan, a mother of three children, says she also gains strength and protection from her faith and God.

In her new job, Jaruvan dug into unscrupulous deals and exposed corrupt tactics that boggle the mind by their subtle deviousness and scale. She estimates that corruption in state-related projects costs the country more than 400 billion baht (US$9.7 billion; €7.9 billion) every year.

Her probes, which resulted in the removal of top ministry officials, uncovered corruption or irregularities in highway construction projects, Bangkok's new international airport, procurement of medicines at government hospitals, long-distance telephone service in rural areas and a government plan to compensate farmers whose chickens were infected with avian flu.

"I have been a fighter all my life, and if I am right I will continue to fight," Jaruvan said in an interview with the Bangkok Post earlier this year. "If I had just turned a blind eye or looked the other way, none of this would have happened."

Moves to oust Jaruvan began in July last year when the Constitution Court ruled that the process leading to her appointment was unconstitutional. But critics and opposition politicians say that minor legal points were brought up simply to bring her down and that the move was a trademark of Thaksin's regime eroding independent, democratic institutions for the benefit of the ruling elite and its cronies.

When a new candidate, Visut Montriwat, a former senior official in the Finance Ministry, was submitted for royal endorsement June 10, the king did not assent for the first time since Thaksin took power in 2001 and Jaruvan in turn said she would only resign by royal command. The deadlock continues.

"What the king is doing is to make things right and he has the right to do so according to the Constitution," says Sulak Sivaraksa, a social critic who has written books on the Thai monarchy. "If Thaksin understands this, he has to immediately revise the decision. He should not push (the issue) further."

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