Questionable reform plan

Last week's quiet revelation of a reorganisation of the army's most secretive unit raises startling and important issues. According to a source within the Internal Security Operations Command, there are plans already afoot to make Isoc, in effect, in charge of strategic security. That includes all intelligence gathering, immigration policy, the battles involving terrorism and transnational crime, and the war against illicit drugs. This deserves greater public airing.

Isoc is known as the army's "dirty tricks" division. Even most of the men and women in the command are shielded from identity. Isoc is top-heavy with "army specialists", a job description that obviously can cover a lot of territory and cover up a lot of missions.

Former Isoc specialist and three-star general Manas Kongpan showed what Isoc can get up to. At the time of the coup in 2014, he was the military's man in charge of dealing with the influx of Rohingya boat people from Myanmar. He "dealt with" the hapless asylum seekers by helping to organise one of the most brutal human trafficking gangs in the region's history. Dozens or maybe many more died in the ring's jungle camps, starved to death or worse, when their relatives or friends were unable to come up with enough extortion payments for the traffickers.

Give full credit to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and military supporters for rooting out Manas. He was convicted on multiple charges of trafficking, kidnapping and other crimes, and no longer is able to abuse his position. The amount of unaccountable power he was awarded by Isoc and its secretive nature became obvious. A senior policeman in the South who helped to uncover the extensive and brutal trafficking of the Rohingya, Pol Man Gen Paween Pongsirin, felt he had to leave his country and seek safety in Australia. That shows how much he feared Manas' power to retaliate.

Isoc also gave the nation the army specialist Maj Gen Kattiya Sawasdipol, known as Seh Daeng. Until he was killed by a sniper during the 2010 troubles in Bangkok, he claimed to be leading and waging guerrilla-type war against the government. Isoc and the army, including superior officers such as Gen Prayut, were unable to control him. He became a symbol of the unaccountable general officer sometimes actually preferred by Isoc.

Sadly, every country needs a command similar to Isoc. Undercover intelligence work against hugely destructive terrorists and criminals is a necessary task. The key to success is tight control and strongly enforced accountability. Unfortunately, the public perception is that Isoc has neither. In the four provinces of the deep South where separatists, terrorists and common criminals threaten decent Thais, Isoc is in complete control. Residents are often vocal about their distrust.

The new plans for Isoc have not been revealed to the public. This newspaper obtained and published an outline of the re-organisation. Even without details, it is clear the military regime is eyeing new powers and a significantly larger funding for Isoc. It should trouble the country that such a massive expansion of power and spending is being planned far away from the public's eyes.

To hand the keys to Isoc for virtually all important security matters is a major step. Rather than leaking the plan in dribs and drabs, the military regime must level with the country. Gen Prayut and other top officers must convince Thais this is a necessary step. Otherwise, the chances for misunderstanding and damage in public trust of the military is a certain result.

Back to top