The power of the military over civilians remains: Five glaring issues and the change of ISOC’s role in the aftermath of NCPO’s dissolution

The 19 September 2006 coup was a turning point for the expansion of powers of the armed forces over the democratically elected civilian government since the end of Cold War, in light of the reorganization of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). The coup makers’ legislative branch passed a statutory law to restructure ISOC, giving rise to the formal and systematic expansion of the military power over civilian affairs.

The trend of such expansion of powers and duties of the armed forces/security authorities continued, even under democratically elected governments. From the 22 May 2014 coup until today, the military’s power reach has continued to increase.  ISOC is legally permitted to take charge of so-called “internal security” matters in lieu of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), following its dissolution. Now the powers and duties of ISOC have been expanded even further.

This report chronicles the transformation of ISOC’s status and structure during the NCPO regime until the new government led by the same military leader, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. All of these contribute to the perpetuation of the military supremacy over civilians.

The five transformations of ISOC from the NCPO era

In its early decades, ISOC was tasked to suppress communism during the Cold War. As the “communist threats’ were in recess from 1982 onward, ISOC’s roles had been sparse. Its role was changed to handle ad hoc situations including the war on drugs, border security, problems stemming from ethnic minorities, and problems in the Southern Border Provinces.

After the 2006 coup, however, ISOC was subject to a major reorganization and revamp. The Internal Security Act 2008, promulgated by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) appointed by the 2006 coup makers, restructured ISOC and placed it under the influence of the Office of the Prime Minister. Despite the Prime Minister being its Director, ISOC is operated as a part of the military structure, through a chain of command in which the Commander in Chief acted as its Deputy Director and the Chief of Staff as its Secretary-General. At the regional level, ISOC Regions are led by the Army Region Commanders.

The Internal Security Act authorizes ISOC to conduct surveillance, investigation, and assessment of unfolding situations which may compromise internal security, and to propose action plans and measures to the cabinet. ISOC can also oversee, coordinate and support the public authorities’ task by implementing such action plans, as well as promote public engagement in the prevention and solution-seeking of problems which may threaten national security and the public order. This prompted “ISOC’s public mobilization” which has been carried out systematically since then.

The institutionalization of ISOC’s structure and roles in statutory law makes it even more difficult to challenge its powers. Previously, only the Prime Minister was authorized to order ISOC operations.

Such legal and structural amendments have continued since the 22 May 2014 coup. At that time ISOC’s powers were further enhanced when Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha invoked Section 44 to issue the Head of the NCPO Order No. 51/2560 on “The amendment of the law concerning the maintenance of internal security” on 21 November 2017.  Following that, the agency was continually restructured under the NCPO until the current government took seat. Five major changes of ISOC can be summarized as follows;

  1. Expansion of the definition of internal security

The Head of the NCPO Order No. 51/2560 redefines the term “internal security” in the Internal Security Act 2008 to include national defence and disaster prevention and relief. Prior to this, disaster prevention and relief fell under the charge of civilian authorities, including the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation. The NCPO’s amendment of the ISA has made natural disasters as a part of “internal security” and paves the way for ISOC and the armed forces to take the lead in relief work.

In addition, the Head of the NCPO Order has expanded ISOC’s duties to include conducting surveillance, investigation, and assessment of the unfolding situations “outside the Kingdom” which may compromise internal security. Monitoring situations outside the country has thus become part of ISOC’s duties. No public information has yet revealed which foreign issues are being monitored and how such monitoring has been carried out.

The expansion of the definition of “internal security” has led to the expansion of duties and roles of the armed forces of Thailand. The broader the definition of internal security has been made to cover a wide range of issues or situations, the more the powers and duties of the armed forces to get engaged in a variety of issues.

  1. The composition of ISOC Regional and Provincial Committees now includes personnel from various public authorities including the police, public prosecutor and administrative organizations

The Head of the NCPO Order No. 51/2560 amending the Internal Security Act 2008 has specifically set out the composition of ISOC Regional and Provincial Committees, detailing the positions and affiliation of the personnel to be recruited to sit as ISOC committee members.

As for ISOC in the South, an ISOC Region Committee had been set up and led by the Commander of Army Area Region with four Vice-Chairpersons, including the most senior Directors General of the Provincial Public Prosecutors in the region, Army Corps Commander, Police Regional Commander, and a representative from the Ministry of Interior.

In addition, it specifies ex officio committee members of the ISOC Region, including the local Provincial Governors, Directors General of the Provincial Public Prosecutors in the region, Provincial Police Region Commander, Heads of the Secretariat of the Committee for the Development of Local Security in the region, etc.,  with the Secretary-General of the ISOC Region as its member and secretary.

Likewise, the Provincial ISOC is chaired by the Governor, with the Provincial Public Prosecutor as the head of the Deputy Governor’s office, Military Deputy Director of Provincial ISOC, and Provincial Police Commander as Vice-Chairs.  Some members were also representatives of various Ministries based in the provinces and the representatives of Military Circles in the region. The Permanent Secretary of the Provincial Authority was appointed as a member and secretary.

Such structure and composition have made the “Commander of Army Area Region”, a military official, more powerful than the “Governor”, who is a civilian official.  Additionally, the authorities involved the judicial officers, including the police and public prosecutor, to become part of ISOC Committees at the regional and provincial levels.

That personnel in the judicial process co-opted as a part of security organs under the charge of the military has led to questions concerning the independence of the police and public prosecutor. Merging various governmental agencies under the umbrella of Regional and Provincial ISOC automatically grants commanding power to military authorities, who can now instruct or call for meetings with civilian authorities and representatives from various Ministries in the region.

  1. The powers and duties of the Regional and Provincial ISOC increased from those of 2008

The Head of the NCPO Order No. 51/2560 clarifies the roles and duties of the Regional and Provincial ISOC.

Under the previous version of the ISA (2008), the Regional and Provincial ISOC was responsible for the maintenance of internal security in the relevant region or the province as instructed by the Director.

The Head of the NCPO Order No. 51/2560 clarifies six mandates of the Regional ISOC and seven for the Provincial ISOC, mainly concerning the power to oversee, integrate and assess internal security operations at the regional and provincial levels.

It is interesting to note that now the Provincial ISOC can take a hand in developing and approving provincial internal security maintenance plans and other related action plans, including on public order maintenance, and on economic and social aspects of all provincial authorities in relation to the internal security of the province.

Under the new mandate, each province is required to develop an internal security maintenance plan under the oversight of the Provincial ISOC. The Provincial ISOC can also get involved with the review and approval of social and economic projects made by any authorities.

Another new mandate of the Provincial ISOC is the power to “invite” a public official or other individuals to provide information or to request them to send information or evidence to assist in ISOC operations.  It is not at all clear, however, as to what kind of information the invitee is supposed to provide.

  1. Secondary laws amended to require other public authorities to directly support the roles of ISOC

In late June 2019, the Ministry of Defence issued “The Ministerial Regulation to Determine Duties and Territory of the Military Circle (No. 2) 2019”. This has supplemented the previous Ministerial Regulation concerning the Military Circle, issued in 2015. The additional duties include supporting the state’s mission to provide public service projects and the Provincial ISOC’s internal security maintenance operations.

The Military Circle in each province is thus obliged to support the Provincial ISOC’s operations. ISOC thereby has more power to solicit support from various agencies under the armed forces.  Under the previous Internal Security Act (2008), ISOC already had the power to request for cooperation from public authorities, including offering their officials to assist with ISOC’s operation.

During the NCPO era, it was reported that in 2017, the Defence Council passed a resolution to set up the Office for Security Task Coordination. As an office under the Ministry of Defence, it must coordinate directly with ISOC on security matters, with personnel and officials being transferred among agencies to work under the Ministry.

The above implementation has gradually transformed ISOC into the “hub” of internal security operations and the “authority in charge of security matters”. The Ministry of Defence and various agencies of the armed forces have been assembled to support ISOC’s operations directly on different levels of command.


  1. The internal reorganization of ISOC

During the NCPO era and until the current government elected in 2019, ISOC was reorganized in accordance with its increased duties. The most important restructuring had to be the “Internal Coordination Centre” within ISOC, which is instrumental in coordinating and monitoring internal security matters. Since 2009, the Internal Coordination Centre had been divided into six permanent divisions.

During the NCPO era, ISOC’s Office of Security Policies and Strategies reorganized the Internal Coordination Centre in August 2016. Now it is divided into five divisions including;

  1. The division on promoting national security, monitoring issues concerning the protection of major institutions of the nation, reconciliation promotion, disaster prevention, and relief;
  2. The division on promoting social security, monitoring anti-human trafficking, migrant labor, narcotic drugs, and the maintenance of public order;
  3. The division on promoting special security issues, monitoring terrorism, transnational crime and cyber threats;
  4. The division on promoting the integrity of natural resources, the environment, energy, and food;
  5. The division on promoting security, particularly in the Southern Border Provinces.

Although the number of divisions has been reduced, each division now covers much more diverse issues. For example, “reconciliation promotion” which did not exist before, now it has become part of the promotion of national security. New issues including cyber threats, energy, and food security are now included in the new structure of the Internal Coordination Center. Such expansion of work through reorganization mirrors the expansion of the term “internal security”.

Before renouncing its duties, the NCPO made an effort to restructure personnel in ISOC. ISOC will henceforth be a coalition of the military, police, and civilians, rather than the military alone, which caused it to be perceived as merely a tool of the armed forces. Given that reason, more positions within the ISOC are now occupied by police and civilian officials. The proportion of personnel in the Internal Coordination Centre is now 2:1:1 for military, police, and civilians.

It is obvious the number of military personnel in ISOC is disproportionally higher than that of police or civilian staff. The military thus remains the dominating power in ISOC.

Attempts to reorganize ISOC continue into Prayut’s new government coalition. On 10 September 2019, the cabinet approved the restructuring, rearrangement of divisions and reorganization of ISOC, as proposed by ISOC. ISOC’s twelve divisions have increased to seventeen.  Among the new divisions are the Office of Law and Human Rights, the Office of Secretariat, the Office of Inspector General, the Digital Security Office and the Security Education and Research Office.

This restructuring appears to be an attempt to grant ISOC more power and duties, as it is now the designated “hub” of all internal security operations in the post-NCPO era.


Military supremacy over civilians, as always

The overall expansion of ISOC’s roles and powers is inseparable from the attempt to proliferate the power of the armed forces, from the NCPO era until after the elections.  Investing such powers in ISOC stands contradictory to the principle of civilian supremacy, an essential benchmark of democracy; members of constitutional bodies should be elected. The public should have a role in managing resource distributions, public administration and the role of the military, not to mention military activities concerning internal security.

Under this principle, the armed forces and security agencies in a democratic society should be of equal status to other public authorities. A government chosen by free and fair elections should have the power to control these organizations, determine their budgets, and give them instructions, as well as to prevent them from getting involved with any civilian affairs, which should not be decided under a military mindset.

Under the incumbent ISOC, the military authorities will continue to have a dominant role over several civilian authorities and affairs. The democratization of the armed forces or security agencies is therefore urgently needed and can be done so only after an amendment of the Internal Security Act to reduce the powers and roles of ISOC.