ISOC Once Again Puts Thailand’s Government Between the People and the Military

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ISOC Once Again Puts Thailand’s Government Between the People and the Military

Thai progressives have long called for the abolition of the military’s notorious Internal Security Operations Command. But don’t expect it to happen under the current government.

ISOC Once Again Puts Thailand’s Government Between the People and the Military
Credit: Depositphotos

Last week, Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin made his first visit to the headquarters of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) at Ruen Ruedi Palace in Bangkok. In addition to serving as prime minister and finance minister, Srettha also serves as director of ISOC, which was set up in the 1960s as part of a broader effort to not only surveil potential communist threats but also extend the influence of the Thai military into broader areas of society. ISOC’s less than stellar reputation was reflected in a social media post by Adisorn Piengkes, the chief government whip for the Pheu Thai Party in Parliament, who called for ISOC to be disbanded, saying that this would be “the equivalent of granting rights and freedoms” to the Thai people.

Adisorn’s point, while largely unacknowledged by the Srettha government, which clarified that it has no plans to dissolve ISOC anytime soon, is a valid one and was repeated by the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP). In July, ISOC’s future was at the heart of one of seven bills aimed at both reforming the military and preventing corporate monopolies. MFP proposed an amendment to the 2008 Internal Security Act as well as the abolition of all prior orders by the National Council for Peace and Order, the military junta that governed Thailand from 2014 to 2019.

Both Adisorn and MFP echo sentiments that have been felt by many Thais for decades, as the institution has become synonymous with both regime repression and historic acts of state violence and bloodshed. Its history is replete with controversy. While the presence of the United States in the mid-1960s escalated a counterinsurgency to combat the threat of communism in Thailand’s northeast, the American military at the time felt that the Thais had all of the institutional and professional military capacity to defeat a potential infiltration. Viewing the northeast with suspicion, Thailand began laying the groundwork for domestic surveillance of both university students, farmers, and associated labor movements. Into the 1970s, ISOC funded notorious pro-monarchy paramilitary organizations like the Red Gaurs and Nawapon, who were instrumental in demonizing and legitimizing violence against students, evidenced by the October 1976 massacre at Thammasat University.

More recently, ISOC has presided over nefarious cyber operations in Thailand’s Deep South, where in 2020 it was accused and admitted to carrying out information operations targeting academics and politicians working for peace in the region. Alarmingly, under the direct supervision of former junta planner and former Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, ISOC created a blog that published stories that were deeply critical of activists and academics working toward a political solution. ISOC justified its actions by claiming it was aiming to curb “fake news”.

The first legitimate attempt to handicap ISOC came in February 2020, when the Future Forward Party, the now-banned predecessor to the MFP, publicly accused the government of fraud, and attempted to pull its funding. Future Forward and some Thai news outlets also reported that ISOC was working to foment hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in the South, with Angkhana Neelapaijit, the former head of the Thai National Human Rights Commission, framing it as the “government using tax money to drive a wedge between people.” During the 2023 election cycle, military reform was a major topic of conversation, particularly among youth, with MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat pledging to “demilitarize” the country.

But with Pheu Thai in power, largely due to both a flawed electoral system created by Thailand’s 2017 Constitution and a coalition built with the support of military-oriented political parties, Srettha has had to make many concessions. In a response to an inflammatory commentary in the Thai Enquirer, Srettha stated that his government believed in “incremental changes, particularly amid two decades of political ideological conflicts that Thailand has experienced.” He added, “We do not choose a path of confrontation and destruction but rather a path of harmonizing ideas and working for the benefit of the people. The continuity of governance through democratic elections is the essence of a lasting and peaceful democracy.”

In other words, the reform-minded proposals of MFP, with whom it attempted to form a coalition after the election in May, have little weight in the new Pheu Thai government. Another term for the “harmonization of ideas” is political pragmatism, or the path of least resistance. To maintain a stable coalition, some “confrontation” must be avoided. Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, the deputy leader of the United Thai Nation Party and former minister attached to former Prime Minister Prayut’s Office, has been strongly opposed to the idea of ISOC dissolution, suggesting it still had a role to play in both protecting internal security and preventing transnational crime.  It is also worth noting that Thanakorn was among the members of the conservative establishment that helped ensure Pita’s rejection as prime minister in July.

It’s clear that any movement to dissolve ISOC will be lost in Parliament. When Romadon Panjor, an MFP MP, suggested a bill targeting the agency, the majority barely gave it any attention. On X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Srettha posted, “I’m not out to please the military, but I must put people’s interests before others. I’ve said it before – the agency will have to focus on development work, not just security deterrence.” Again, this suggested compromise.

As long as the current governing coalition holds and the military parties remain a significant part of the machinery of government, ISOC isn’t going anywhere.