Story by Pravit Rojanaphruk and Sunantha Buabmee
BANGKOK — Giving a surveillance agency run by the armed forces a free rein in national security issues risks turning Thailand into a totalitarian state, a political scientist warned in an interview.
Puangthong R. Pawakapan, whose researches into the Internal Security Operation Command – or ISOC – have been widely cited and republished, said a recent trend by the government of handing more power and oversight to the agency will result in a real-life depiction of dystopian fiction Nineteen Eighty-four.
“Thai society at present is like ‘1984’. At the local level, you have ISOC-trained people who keep watch on others while on social media, there’s also an organized cyber [army] watching,” Puangthong said in an exclusive interview. “We are in an era where we are increasingly watched by the state and we must be wary.”
Read: Govt to Build ‘Cyber Warrior’ Army to Monitor Netizens
“The situation in Thailand is alarming. We also see some media attacking those who hold differing political ideas,” she said.
According to its own stated missions, the ISOC pledges to suppress any threats to national security, defend the monarchy, promote unity, and protect the public from harm.
But in practice, civilians often found themselves under the ISOC’s gunsight. In the most recent high-profile case, its legal representative filed sedition charges last week against 12 opposition politicians and academics, including leaders of Future Forward and Pheu Thai parties.
They stand accused of inciting insurrection against the state for discussing amendments to the junta-drafted 2017 constitution on Sep. 28 in Pattani province. Puangthong said the 12 might be stand trial in a military tribunal because Pattani is currently under the State of Emergency enacted by the army to combat local separatists.
“They have so much power, but even more so in areas where the State of Emergency is declared. There they really have a lot of power,” Puangthong said.
The organization was first formed during the Cold War, in 1965, to combat Communist guerrillas plaguing the countryside. It was then known as Communist Suppression Command, before it was changed to the current name in 1973.
Although ISOC is technically a civilian agency under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office, its forces are mostly military men wielding military powers.
The line between civilian and armed forces in ISOC is also blurred due to the fact that its director and deputy director are Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who doubles as Defense Minister, and army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, respectively.
The line is even more dubious in Pattani and two other southern border provinces, the academic said.
In those provinces, the military supersedes provincial governors under ISOC chains of command. The regional army commander doubles as a regional head of ISOC, and each governor in the Deep South serve as his deputies.
“Internal security issue is a very broad matter. It’s being monopolized by the military, however,” Puangthong said. “If there would be a reform, we need an organization that thinks far ahead, and understands democracy and human rights, not just counterproductive military perspectives.”
Additional writing Teeranai Charuvastra