The Srettha Thavisin administration's decision to keep the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) is a reminder to voters that politicians are prone to changing their minds as soon as they become a part of the government.
Under the previous administration, Pheu Thai, as the leader of the opposition bloc, had vehemently called for the scrapping of Isoc. Now, however, Isoc seems to have turned into a national security apparatus that the government cannot live without.
Last week, PM Srettha and Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang moved to protect the agency in the face of a campaign by the Move Forward Party to have it dissolved.
The agency has long faced criticisms over its massive budget and vague responsibilities, which often overlap with other agencies. Under the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, for instance, it was often regarded as an extension of the military, with critics calling it a means for the junta to suppress its critics.
Indeed, Isoc is one of the most enigmatic agencies within the Thai government. With the prime minister as its chief, Isoc’s office is located in the Defence Ministry’s compound, and its four local offices are headed by regional military commanders.
Officially, its main role is to facilitate coordination between ministries, government agencies and security forces. It has numerous, wide-ranging responsibilities, from combatting human trafficking to the smuggling of oil and other contraband goods, drug prevention and rehabilitation, border security, violence in the deep South, intelligence gathering to psychological operation. Isoc was also required to “facilitate” different works on matters relating to national security, which include poverty reduction, natural disasters, pandemic prevention, climate change and international terrorism.
If the scope of Isoc’s responsibility is confusing, then its structure is best described as mind-boggling.
Isoc does not have any permanent staff — most of the 5,000 officers it calls staff are taken from the Defence Ministry and the Royal Thai Police (RTP). Soldiers and police officers who were transferred to Isoc continue to receive wages from their initial employer, plus an extra stipend for their work with Isoc.
Those working in the restive deep South provinces with the Isoc Region 4, meanwhile, are often fast-tracked to higher ranks and better positions in their original offices.
Many officers who work for Isoc, however, are not subject to checks and balances, leading to abuses which have grabbed the public attention.
Last year, Isoc admitted to “borrowing” Pol Cpl Kornsasi Buayaem, a former girlfriend of Senator Thani Onlahiad, who was arrested for abusing her maid. While officially employed for Isoc’s Region 4 office, she never relocated to the South and performed her duties as required despite receiving a monthly bonus from Isoc. Needless to say, she wasn’t the only person who benefited from Isoc’s loose standards.
Over the past decade, Isoc has received over 100 billion baht from different governments. Under PM Srettha, Isoc stands to receive about 7 billion baht. Under Gen Prayut, Isoc’s annual budget was closer to 10 billion.
Mr Srettha’s administration must clarify Isoc’s roles and responsibilities, in addition to coming up with criteria to objectively measure the agency’s performance.
If he has no plans to scrap Isoc, the least he can do is ensure the agency serves the public instead of corrupt police officers and soldiers.