22 July 2024

The Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), since the end of the Cold War, has been used mostly for political purposes, to protect and perpetuate the power of the Thai military and establishment elite rather than for internal security.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin recently rejected a proposal by the opposition Move Forward Party to scrap the ISOC. The PM argued that the ruling Pheu Thai Party had made no policy pledge to scrap the military-dominated agency.

“Dissolving the ISOC was never a part of the Pheu Thai Party’s policy, neither before, during, nor after the election. This fact is reinforced by the policy declaration I made to Parliament,” Srettha said on his social media platform X (formerly Twitter) on November 4. He was responding to an accusation by a Move Forward MP that his government was maintaining the agency to please the military.

Srettha said his government intended to modernize the army and integrate it into the democratic process.

“We acknowledge that the ISOC’s historical national security mission, dating back to the Cold War era, is no longer as relevant today,” he tweeted. “Under my administration, it is my duty to ensure that the ISOC’s roles align with democratic values, upholding the rights and preserving the freedom of our citizens.”

The termination of the ISOC became a big debate when Romadon Panjor, a Move Forward MP, recently proposed a bill to put an end to the Internal Security Law, which could pave the way for the termination of the ISOC. The bill, which is related to budgetary allocations, cannot be taken up for consideration by the House of Representatives unless endorsed by the prime minister.

Romadon explained that the dissolution of the ISOC is a part of the party’s military reform policy to end military intervention in political and civilian affairs. “The military must no longer monopolize security matters. Civilians should also be involved and participate in security arrangements,” he told a press briefing.

The ISOC was misused by the armed forces to infiltrate, indoctrinate society, and deepen social division to enable the government to maintain the status quo and the privilege of the elite, he said. The ISOC had been actively involved in operations to contain violence in the restive South for nearly two decades but had failed to bring peace to the region, he said.

“Like the military, the ISOC viewed a certain group of people as a national security threat, and therefore it was not able to resolve the conflicts,” Romadon, who is actively involved in the peace process in the predominantly Muslim region, argued.

 Anti-communist legacy

The ISOC was de facto a political wing of the Thai armed forces to perform civilian work during their counter-insurgency operations against the communist movement during the Cold War. The precursor of the ISOC could be traced back to the early 1960s when the then-military regime under Marshal Sarit Thanarat set up the Central Security Command using military might to suppress, but failed to defeat the communists. Tough handling subsequently implanted resistance among oppressed people.

With the assistance of the United States, the military-backed government under Marshal Thanom Kittikachon came up with a new idea, forming the Communist Suppression Operation Command (CSOC) in December 1965 as a center to integrate civilian-military operations to fight the communist movement. Its mission included development projects, psychological warfare, and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the people mostly in the rural areas where communist insurgents were active.

The CSOC was renamed ISOC in 1974 when the insurgency warfare waged by the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was at its peak following the student uprising to oust the Thanom regime a year earlier. The ISOC is one of the key agencies employing a new approach, better known in Thai as Kan Muang Nam Kan Thahan, initiated by General Prem Tinsulanonda to politically defeat the CPT.

The ISOC was supposed to have been wrapped up in 2000 when the government under Chuan Leekpai scrapped the 1952 Anti-Communist Activities Law. Prime Minister Chuan, however, reassigned the agency to handle a wider scope of security, including non-traditional security threats such as narcotics and human trafficking.

 A politicized agency

It was Thaksin Shinawatra who gave the ISOC a new lease of life when he issued a PM order in May 2002, amending the mission, roles, and responsibilities of the agency. Thaksin himself headed the ISOC and appointed General Pallop Pinmanee as his deputy and brought senior military officers on board.

The ISOC then was commissioned as an anti-narcotics task force and involved in operations in the deep South when violence broke out in early 2004. The agency has become politicized since then. Thaksin accused several ISOC officials of plotting his assassination in August 2006. Pallop was sacked after his driver was found driving a car containing 67 kilograms of explosives near the residence of Thaksin.

The ISOC assumed its present form after a military coup toppled Thaksin in 2006. The National Legislative Assembly handpicked by the junta promulgated the Internal Security Act in 2008 shortly before the interim government under General Surayud Chulanont left office. Under the law, the ISOC was authorized to oversee all dimensions of internal security, including the situation in the deep South and the political rifts as well as threats to the monarchy.

While the agency was under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office and headed by the premier, it has mainly been run by the military with the army commander as ISOC deputy director and the Army chief of staff as the secretary-general.

The ISOC has a nationwide network. Provincial ISOC offices are headed by the governor, and the Regional ISOC, which are above the provincial level, are led by regional commanders of the army. It currently has a forward command in Yala province to oversee the situation and operations in the deep South.

 Huge budget for redundancy

Scholars and politicians who support the dissolution of the ISOC say the government allocates an average of 8 billion baht annually to the ISOC for internal security matters, which are also overseen by the armed forces, police, and the Interior Ministry, making many of its functions redundant. The agency got a total budget of 1.3 trillion baht from 2008 to 2023, according to the Budget Bureau.

The ISOC employs 1,200 officials under its payroll and was able to recruit as many as 50,000 officials from other agencies to work for its unclear security operations. During the previous term of the House of Representatives, it was disclosed that the ISOC had a hidden work force of inactive officials, who got allowances without doing any work.

The opposition revealed that the agency used information operation warfare to produce fake news aimed at discrediting politicians, activists, and academics who had political ideas different from that of the government.

Chulalongkorn University academic Puangthong Pawakapan wrote in her book “Infiltrating Society: The Thai Military’s Internal Security Affairs” that the internal security mechanism had become a political tool of the military and its conservative allies to protect and perpetuate their political domination and suppress political dissidents.

The ISOC organized a huge number of voters, perhaps as many as 500,000 people, to assist with a referendum campaign to support the constitution drafted by the junta’s National Council Peace and Order in 2016-2017, she wrote.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk