In potential Israel-Hamas hostage deal, Thailand’s stakes are high

Since fighting broke out between Hamas and Israel last month, many countries have found themselves caught in the middle of the conflict. From foreign nationals trapped in Gaza during the early weeks of Israel’s bombing campaign, to the dozens of dual citizens and foreigners killed by Hamas fighters on Oct. 7, the losses have never been confined to Israeli and Palestinian families.

And perhaps no outside country has more at stake than Thailand.

Having been in office not even 100 days, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin faces a tight balancing act trying to secure the release of 25 Thai hostages taken by Hamas – the most of any foreign nation – while also maintaining positive ties with Israel and managing reactions to the war back home.

Thailand has used local Thai Muslim intermediaries as part of its larger negotiating team to hold quiet talks with Hamas representatives in Tehran. Thai politician Lepong Syed, president of Thai-Iran Alumni Association, said in a press conference last week that Thai hostages were safe and would “return to the motherland soon.” Reuters reported Tuesday that Israel and Hamas are nearing an agreement on a temporary cease-fire and hostage exchange, though it’s not yet certain whether the Thai hostages will be part of that deal.

“This is a big win for the Srettha government, as they’re currently looking for quick wins,” says William Jones, professor of international relations and chair of the social sciences division at Mahidol University International College in Bangkok. “The release of Thai hostages is deeply important to the Thai population writ large. ... It hits a nerve.”

A delicate position

Historically, the predominantly Buddhist nation has managed to maintain a relatively neutral stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It fostered friendly ties with both Israel and the Palestinian territories, recognizing the latter’s statehood in 2012 and voting against the United States’ move to endorse Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. Israel and Thailand are deeply intertwined economically, with some 30,000 Thai laborers working in Israel’s agricultural industry, thousands of whom were stationed on farms near the Gaza border.

Thais make up about 10% of the 240 people taken hostage on Oct. 7, and an estimated 39 Thai laborers were killed during the rampage.

“Thailand’s relationship with Israel should be secure, as Thailand has subtly sided with the Israelis due to economic factors,” says Dr. Jones. “Labor is an important issue, but also Thai exports of seafood and other agricultural goods is seen by Bangkok as most important, especially with this government having a laser focus on economic policies.”

Immediately after the Hamas attack, the Thai government released a statement expressing “our deepest condolences to the government and people of Israel on the unfortunate loss of lives and injuries caused by this inhumane and indiscriminate act.”

Now, as negotiations with Hamas over the release of Thai hostages continue through Iran, the conflict’s high death toll is stirring pro-Palestinian sentiment in a country once seen as broadly apathetic toward the conflict.

“The government needs to walk the line between distinguishing Hamas governance and the Palestinian people, because the mood in Thailand is mixed,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies. “Most Thais are upset about both the kidnappings of Thai workers and the loss of innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Where public opinion is split, such divisions largely fall along regional lines.

From north to south, Thailand watches Gaza

Many Thai workers in Israel hail from the poor, northeastern region of Isan, where people now fear for their friends and family. Then there are Muslim Thai Malays in the south who are outraged by the killing of civilians in Gaza.

The latter region remains particularly volatile, with the ongoing south Thailand insurgency heating up again this year. It has also seen more active protests against the war in Gaza, explains Dr. Thitinan, an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

On Oct. 21, several hundred Thai Muslims bused in from southern Thailand to protest peacefully outside the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok. Earlier that morning, in an unrelated incident on the Thai-Malay border, Islamic insurgents set off improvised explosive devices and engaged in a gun battle with police before slipping back into the forests of Songkhla province.

From a political perspective, Dr. Jones says Thailand’s divided response is manageable, noting that the south is not an electoral base for Mr. Srettha’s Pheu Thai Party.

“Isan is a Pheu Thai stronghold, so this constituency takes precedence. Srettha will pay lip service to the Muslim population [in the south], but delegate to the military on security issues unless things look to be getting out of control,” he says.

Yet some nongovernmental organization leaders in Thailand worry that violence could escalate as the crisis in Gaza intensifies and outrage mounts next door in Malaysia, whose government openly supports Hamas and condemns Israel.

Southerners say it’s been difficult to see graphic images of death and destruction from Gaza.

“We are so upset, and there is a lot of anger. ... No one should kill innocent people, especially those children,” says Anchana Heemmina, co-founder of the Songkhla-based human rights organization Duayjai Group, which assists victims of excessive police force.

She says that some people in southern Thailand are now drawing parallels between Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, which established the modern Malaysia-Thailand border and gave Thailand control of the southern, majority-Malay Patani region. It’s possible that violent separatist groups could use their grief and empathy to stir trouble, she says, but locals’ primary desire remains peace.

“We understand [the Palestinians’ experience] and empathize with each other,” she says. “We hope to embrace greater connectivity with the Palestinian people for peace.”

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