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Unleashing Thailand’s Secret Superpower: The Controversial Rise of Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC)!

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The contentious proposition from the Move Forward Party to dissolve the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) has ignited public discussion, shedding light on the enigmatic institution’s expansive duties. Some pundits are even conjuring images of security “superpowers”. The journey of Isoc has been both extensive and transformative, leading to its current incarnation, recognisable to the general public.

Detractors of the organization liken it to a “state within a state”. Its roots can be traced back to the 2006 coup d’état headed by former military commander Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, which resulted in the overthrow of the Thaksin dictatorship. In response to the political upheaval, the temporary Surayud government introduced an internal security law in 2008, which effectively breathed new life into Isoc, subsequently catapulting it to become a far-reaching and formidable force.

During the Thaksin administration, Isoc’s influence was significantly diminished with other authorities such as the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) and the Civilian-Police-Military Command 43 also dissolved. Gen Sonthi, leader of the Council National Security that enacted the coup in 2006, proposed Isoc should be remodelled, taking inspiration from the US Department of Homeland Security.

As per Section 7 of the Internal Security law, Isoc holds a versatile collection of responsibilities. These include monitoring, inspection, and evaluation of threats to national security; overseeing internal safety and proposing plans; coordinating with other state organisations; raising public consciousness of national unity and vigilance towards the nation, religion, and monarchy; and executing tasks assigned by the cabinet, the National Security Council or the prime minister.

Following the consequential 2014 coup and the 2019 general elections, where coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha came back to power, Isoc faced accusations of being wielded as a political instrument by the military government. With Gen Prayut sitting as the ex officio director of Isoc, the command came under the ambit of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Over the subsequent nine years, critics, particularly those associated with the MFP claimed Isoc was using its power to monitor their actions for political ends. These critics often rallied around the slogan of reforming the military and dissolving Isoc during their election campaigns.

Adisorn Piengkes, a Pheu Thai Party list-MP serving as chief government whip, was another advocate of the dissolution of Isoc. He proposed that Isoc enables the military to encroach on the affairs of other state institutions and undermine democracy.

In its current composition, Isoc employs civilians and police officers, but its primary staff hail from the army. As a result, Isoc is widely perceived as an arm of the military. With a structure that places the army commander in the role of deputy director and the army’s chief-of-staff as the agency’s secretary-general, Isoc is seen as an influential “fifth force”, surpassing even the army in authority.

Throughout the provincial framework, military officers hold deputy roles and serve as contact points with the military when local manpower is required for specific tasks. These officers are colloquially referred to as “deputy governors from the military”, suggesting an overshadowing military presence. However, the military justifies this as a checks and balances system.

Gen Nopphanan Chanpradab, an army specialist and peer of the current army chief, stands by the agency, contending that its role and authority are legally solid, and its operations do not infringe upon other armed forces’ jurisdictions.

A source from the military asserts that the likelihood of the ruling Pheu Thai government dissolving the agency is minimal. This is primarily due to the government’s leveraging of Isoc’s wide network for its own interests. The establishment of the coalition government between Pheu Thai and the conservative camp also ensures the military will not face backlash, given the government’s reliance on its support in quelling anti-monarchy movements in the parliament.

Despite the prevailing opposition, the bill is unlikely to make headway as Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has dismissed the prospect of breaking up Isoc while simultaneously serving as its director and defender. Committed to strengthening national security, promoting democracy and people’s rights, and bolstering economic security, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin envisages transforming Isoc into a more effective instrument for the benefit of the nation.

Closing the discussion, the prime minister urged, “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”.

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