Thai intelligence agencies need a revamp

opinion January 11, 2016 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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Thailand needs new corps of intelligence officials who have a broader knowledge of their country and of events abroad, especially of neighbouring countries. Such officials must also be able to draw up recommendations that help decision-makers adopt wise p

The new National Intelligence Strategy (2015-22), recently approved by the Cabinet, put forward these guidelines. The strategy is mandatory for all government agencies in planning their intelligence gathering and analysis in the next seven years.

After the Erawan bombing last May, which killed 20 people and injured 125, numerous questions were asked about the overall capacity – both human and institutional – of Thai intelligence agencies in the face of new threats from extremists and terrorists and non-traditional sources, such as cyberspace attacks emanating from local and foreign networks of individuals and groups.

Since the September 11 attacks in the US, Thailand has been listed as one of the top rendezvous places for ill-intentioned elements to plan their attacks. Some would go even further and view this country as a possible recruiting place for potential extremists.

The country’s central location and easy access, coupled with an inefficient immigration control system, has encouraged individuals and groups shunned by other countries to come to Thailand. Some have successfully used the country as “sleeper cells” and a “strategic planning centre”.

Top news last year concerned the utter failure of intelligence and the loose immigration regime in detecting and recording dubious persons visiting this country, especially persons entering through the land border across Cambodia. Thailand has well over 80 permanent border checkpoints with four neighbouring countries – Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

At least 1,600 officials have been listed as spooks belonging to seven Thai agencies: National Intelligence Directorate, Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Supreme Command Headquarters’ Intelligence, Special Branch Police and National Security Command Headquarters.

They are supposed to coordinate and work together under the umbrella of the Intelligence Coordinating and Operation Command Centre. But most operate in isolation, which has hampered their ability to verify intelligence and strategise common action plans.

For instance, the investigation of the Erawan bombing and arrests of various suspects demonstrated these shortcomings. It took the investigators two days of “lom sao” operation – literally cutting down electricity concrete poles – to identify the first suspect in the bombing. It refers also to a tedious search effort of going through all threads of mobile calls made before and during the days of bombing. Recently the Immigration Bureau agreed to provide its data base to the Special Branch Police. Hopefully in the near future all government agencies will be linked simultaneously on shared bio-data.

That identity-check operation would be only a click away if Thai immigration and police were linked through an online and real-time biometric data system. Thailand has yet to use this system for identification of foreign visitors. Both Malaysia and Cambodia have already installed such a system. The Prayut government has made tightening of immigration control its top national agenda as well as eradicating corruption in the bureau where human trafficking and illegal immigrants are linked.

The latest strategy includes old priorities and new issues, particularly those related to monarchy, the separatist movement in southern Thailand, political division in Thailand, food and resource-based security and threats from extremists.

The last category is something new. Thailand used to have a naive view that it did not have enemies and it is never the target of any group. As a result, the country should remain open to welcoming foreigners. However, the Erawan blast changed this stereotyped thinking, prompting all agencies to improve their knowledge of terrorist or extremist groups with contacts and sleeper cells inside the country. With a proliferation of non-state actors, especially individuals and groups with local and foreign networks, Thailand’s future security has been severely compromised.

In the past, intelligence agencies focused on counter-insurgency, mainly against communist and separatist groups. Beginning in 2000, most intelligence activities were narrowly aimed at political and social groups that impacted on domestic stability and development. For instance, it was no secret that the National Security Council, under the Thaksin and Yingluck administrations, dwelt on domestic issues which required massive human and financial resources to track down dissidents and troublemakers. Furthermore, the attack on a marine base in Narathiwat in April 2004 effectively shifted the long-standing benign situation to the current daily violent conflict.

Since then, intelligence agencies have intensified their operations in the South with burgeoning budgets to prevent future unrest. For the time being, the Thai security community is still reluctant to identify insurgent groups in southern Thailand as terrorist perpetrators, as is the practice in other countries.

Interestingly, only recently the government has changed the use of “phu koh kham mai sangom” – persons who instigate trouble – to “phu kho hed roon-raeng” – persons who cause violent situations. This sense of denial is still prevalent among the security apparatus for fear that labelling local insurgents as terrorist groups would only open the floodgates for outside intervention.

Changing mindsets, and employing better intelligence officials, through security sector reform and efficient immigrant control would be the best possible way to counter negative trends that threaten the country.