Isoc maintains a tight grip
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Isoc maintains a tight grip

MFP's bill seeking to abolish the internal security agency is unlikely to get green light

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin addresses a press conference at the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) headquarters on Oct 31. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin addresses a press conference at the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) headquarters on Oct 31. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

The Move Forward Party's bill seeking to abolish the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) has drawn public attention to the scope and scale of the unit's responsibilities, prompting questions about the existence of a security "super agency".

Isoc has been on a long journey and undergone many changes before becoming the Isoc which the public knows today.

The current structure is said by critics to resemble a "government within a government". It started functioning after the 2006 coup led by then army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin to oust the Thaksin administration.

Following the putsch, the interim Surayud government issued an internal security law in 2008 which effectively revived Isoc and made it a large and powerful authority.

The agency's role was reduced during the Thaksin government which also disbanded the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) and the Civilian-Police-Military Command 43.

Gen Sonthi, head of the Council National Security that led the coup in 2006, said at that time Isoc would be modelled after the US Department of Homeland Security.

Under Section 7 of the Internal Security law, Isoc monitors, inspects and assesses situations that can pose threats to national security; oversees internal security and proposes plans; coordinates with other state agencies; builds public awareness on national unity and the need to protect the nation, religion and monarchy; and carries out tasks as assigned by the cabinet, the National Security Council or prime minister.

After the 2014 coup and the 2019 general election in which coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha returned to power, Isoc was criticised for being used as a political tool by the military government. Gen Prayut served as ex officio director of Isoc, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister's Office.

During the following nine years, some opposition politicians especially those from the MFP accused the military of monitoring their activities and abusing Isoc for political purposes. Dissolving Isoc and reforming the military were key pledges of MFP's election campaign.

Adisorn Piengkes, a Pheu Thai Party list-MP who serves as chief government whip, also backed the proposed disbanding of Isoc. He argued that Isoc allows the military to interfere in other state organisations' work and the country's democracy.

Isoc's structure

Isoc has civilians and police on its staff but the agency's core personnel come from the army. Thanks to this, Isoc is widely seen as being under the military's control.

With the army commander serving as Isoc deputy director and the army's chief-of-staff as the agency's secretary-general, the agency is viewed as "a fifth force" but with even greater authority than the army.

Isoc has regional offices headed by commanders of the army regions and provincial offices headed by provincial governors.

The regional Isoc offices are perceived as mini-governments because their heads, the commanders of the four army regions, exercise control over the provincial Isoc offices run by civilian provincial governors.

At the provincial offices, military officers are appointed as deputies. In routine operations, they act as points of liaison with the military when the provinces need manpower to support certain tasks.

These officers are referred to as "deputy governors from the military", suggesting their presence makes some civilian officials feel that they are under the military's shadow. But the military says it's only part of its checks and balances system.

Gen Nopphanan Chanpradab, an army specialist and classmate of the army chief, defended the agency, saying its role and power are clearly defined by the law and its work does not overlap with the other armed forces.

"The bill seeking to dissolve Isoc is against a principle already established in law. Moreover, there is no evidence the military has control over civilians that could justify its disbanding," he said.

He told the Bangkok Post that Isoc works with agencies to address situations where direct responsibility is unclear, and frequently serves as a crucial missing link.

Abolition unlikely

A source in the army said there is only a slim chance the ruling Pheu Thai government will dissolve the agency as the government enjoys exploiting the agency's wide network for its own purposes.

The formation of the coalition government between the Pheu Thai and the so-called conservative camp also ensures the military will not face "retaliation" because the government needs its support in fighting the anti-monarchy elements of parliament.

"They also need the military's support to fight the next election," the source said. "Isoc is a useful tool for the government."

"Although it can't magically produce an election win, it can bolster a political base," the source added.

The bill is, therefore, unlikely to see the light of the day as Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has rejected the idea of disbanding Isoc and serves as both director and advocate.

"Dissolving the Isoc? No, that has never crossed this government's mind," the prime minister said on Oct 31 after chairing a meeting of Isoc top brass at the command's headquarters.

Isoc would, however, be transformed into a more effective tool for protecting national security, promoting democracy and people's rights as well as strengthening economic security.

"Let that party handle it and put it to parliament for deliberation. The military, state agencies and politicians can focus on our work. The people will be the judge," said the prime minister of the MFP's policy to disband Isoc.

The bill has hit a snag because it is deemed a finance-related bill due to its proposed transfer of responsibilities, assets and budgets to the Interior Ministry.

As such, it requires prime ministerial approval under Section 133 of the constitution so it can be put up for House deliberation.

Mr Srettha's stance on the issue is not a surprise and the prime minister is known to have adopted a friendly stance towards the military.

Recently, he commended the armed forces for managing to hand over their surplus land, totalling 9,276 rai, for redistribution to landless farmers under the so-called "Nong Wua So" development model in Udon Thani province.

The prime minister said he discussed the development model with the military in his first days of taking office to eradicate poverty and landlessness problems and was delighted the military produced results in less than two months.

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