The Thai military’s Internal Security Operations Command – its political arm – has become what amounts to a Deep State that “has been dangerously empowered and increasingly employed by military regimes to dictate the country’s political direction,” according to a critical report by Puangthong R. Pawakapan, an international relations professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
The internal security unit began to consolidate its power decades ago during the Communist insurrection, playing a major role – with the connivance of the United States in creating the monarchy as an unassailable institution – via a wide range of civil affairs projects including rural development, mass organization and mobilization campaigns and psy-war operations, according to the recently-published, heavily-footnoted 44-page report by Dr Puangthong, also a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. It is titled Trends in Southeast Asia: The Central Role of Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command In the Post-Counter-Insurgency Period.
The military’s power is exerted not only through its use of force but also by means of its socio-political arms, a potent tool with which conservative elites can undermine and control electoral democracy and through which the military can maintain its power, she writes.
It has long been an article of faith that ever since the coup that ended the unlimited power of the monarchy in 1932, ending 150 years of absolutism under the Chakri Dynasty now headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, the military has remained the real power in Thailand. However, Puangthong’s description of just how it came to power and how it continues to enforce that power is a daring exercise in a country where hundreds have been arrested and sentenced to what amounts to reeducation in the wake of the 2014 coup that ended representative democracy and where any mention of the royalty can earn long jail terms for lèse-majeste. The description of the US’s cold-war role in hyping the monarchy is an equally taboo subject.
The communist insurgency in Thailand and neighboring countries in the 1960 and 1970s “compelled Thai ruling elites to realize that the use of armed suppression alone was inadequate,” the professor writes. The “Democratic Soldiers” within the Army’s intelligence circles thus pushed the new perception that the root cause of the armed conflict was socio-economic and political injustice.
That meant mopping up by the military must be in tandem with political offensive measures including economic development, mass organization and psychological operations – a strategy advocated by the US government, which viewed Thailand as an “important component in the US’s containment policy in Southeast Asia throughout the Cold War period and thus benefited from US assistance for security and economic development.”
US aid, Puangthong writes, also served the vested interests of the Thai military leaders and strengthened the country’s military regimes, which simply added the civil affairs program to their mandate through the Central Security Command in 1962 by the government of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, an authoritarian who banned political parties and opposition newspapers and suspended constitutional rights. Its name was changed to ISOC in 1974. Although nominally it was under the prime minister’s authority, most command positions have been held by the military.
In 1987, the prime minister replaced the commander of the Army as ISOC director, and the latter became the deputy director. Eventually the ISOC became the vehicle for General Prem Tinsolananda, who eventually rose to head the king’s privy council and remains one of Thailand’s most powerful figures.
“The power of ISOC was further magnified after the coup toppling Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006,” Puangthong writes. In the wake of the coup, the internal security organization has taken on the coordinating power of other state agencies
Territorial units of the Local Agency Department, as well as its village heads and district heads throughout the country efficiently assisted the military, basically becoming an administrative and civil wing.
The monarchy was deeply involved in the security development strategy under the leadership of the late king, who died in October 2016, to be replaced by Vajiralongkorn. The King’s role was vital for anti-communist operations, with royal development projects essential to US-initiated spy-ops against the Communists. It was the US, Puangthong argues, that launched the royal institution as a symbol of Thainess against the alien invasion of communism. Royalist military governments intensified the psy-ops program, making the king the figure of the highest moral authority in Thai society.
“The royal projects were often cited as evidence of the king’s devotion to and sacrifice for the people of Thailand,” according to the study. “Such seemingly apolitical development projects became emblematic of King Bhumibol’s public image of the righteous king and of the essential basis of the hyper-royalist ideology in Thailand.”
The interdependency of the monarchy and the military, in which where the latter acted as the subordinate to the former, strengthened the political power of both. The special relationship between the two most important institutions in the US containment policy in Thailand developed through their cooperative implementation of the political offensive strategy. The royal development projects spearheaded the Thai state’s effort to fight the anti-communist war in remote rural and upland areas.
“Mass organizations pledged loyalty to the monarchy and received royal patronage and support in return. Royal patronage was a license to draw state approval, budget and cooperation from both government agencies and private firms. King Bhumibol’s speeches often emphasized the necessity of the involvement of the armed forces in the national development program, thus justifying the military’s expansive role in civil affairs.”
Today, Puangthong writes, “Creating the force of compliant royalist citizen is the foremost objective that the royalist elite cannot afford to abandon. While politicians claim their political legitimacy from ballots, the military and its conservative allies can claim to have overwhelming support from the royalist core.”
Although Dr Puangthong prudently doesn’t mention it, the monarchy today is under strain as perhaps never since the 1932 coup, with the newly crowned king looked upon as self-indulgent, dissolute and perhaps half-mad, dispatching subjects on a whim and creating a reign of deep fear within the palace. Creation of the monarchy by the military has today put them in a trap, with the king seemingly willing to turn on almost anybody for no reason. Several top aides from the police have met untimely deaths and Vajiralongkorn has humiliated others.
But as Puangthong points out, “Insulting and threatening the king, the queen, the heir and the regent are considered a threat to national security. The fact that the number of people being charged with the law skyrocketed after the coup of 2006 indicates how national security has been exploited for political objectives.”
The internal security unit’s “current conception of national security under its charge has expanded to cover the affairs of minorities and illegal migrants, drug trafficking, cyber-crimes, terrorism, deforestation and conflict over natural resources, ‘influential people’ and mafia gangs, and even natural disasters.” Under the military regime, critical comments about former General Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the prime minister, were considered a crime of sedition. Last but not the least, the military role in “national development” encompassed a wide range of socio-economic and political affairs. The 1974 Constitution became a precedent for a similar clause in Thailand’s later constitutions. The more power the military holds, the more broadly and arbitrarily these terms are interpreted.”
The synergic relationship between the military and the monarchy has not only benefited the two politically but has also provided legitimacy for the military’s penetration of Thai society, Puangthong writes. “ISOC, the major political arms of the military, obtained security, legal, constitutional and royal legitimacy for its functioning. In fact, the power of the military and royalist ideology kept expanding into civil society discourses during the counter-insurgency period.”
With the communists defeated, she concludes, military leaders devised a new strategy with legal support to continue the military’s role in politics. “Promotion of ‘the democratic regime with the king as head of the state’ and combating new security threats were added to the duties of the armed forces.
Thailand’s ruling elites have even relied on the military internal security unit’s apparatus to quell their political opponents, as in the case of the Abhisit government’s actions against the Red Shirts in 2009 and 2011. Even the reform of the armed forces under Thaksin was limited. Therefore, the alliance of the old powers was able to derail democracy through the coups of 2006 and 2014 that toppled elected governments led by political parties loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra
ISOC has been empowered and increasingly employed by the military regimes to dictate political direction, retaining the old powers’ repressive and ideological apparatus to undermine, control, and threaten democratic forces.
“Its activities are a major obstacle to Thailand’s democratization. Any security reform in the future must take ISOC’s role in civil affairs into serious consideration. Although ISOC’s role shifted from counter-insurgency to counter-democracy, what remains the same is that its main targets have always been fellow Thai citizens, whose ideologies and political aspirations are different from those of the establishment.”
The Thai military’s main function and duty is to wage war against internal rather than external threats, Puangthong concludes. “Last but not least, the lack of interest in the military’s extensive role in the socio-political arena is reflected in most recommendations for security sector reform in Thailand… Though calls for the military to return to their barracks, enhancing democratic governance and civilian control over the military are often made by civic groups and scholars, none of them suggests the removal of the military’s political and ideological apparatuses.”