BANGKOK – Buddhist-majority Thailand’s new prime minister flew to Palestinian-friendly Malaysia and reached out to other Muslim nations amid hopes for the release of 17 impoverished Thai laborers held by Hamas, who already slaughtered 28 of them during its assault in Israel.
Weeping families in bleak rural Thai villages said their ill-fated relatives went to Israel to pay off family debts or upgrade their meager existence.
Relatives in Thailand went to local shines and conducted ceremonies mixing Buddhist, Hindu, and animist beliefs, hoping for metaphysical help for their trapped loved ones and the deceased.
“We have a lot of debts, and working abroad pays better than in Thailand,” said worried Kanyarat Suriyasri, after hearing her husband Owat Suriyasri, 40, was seized as a hostage.
Owat has labored in Israel since 2021, stacking shekels to build a house in Thailand for Kanyarat and their two kids.
“I would hug him and say: ‘I’ve missed you, I won’t let you anywhere far away again’,” she told a wire agency news service.
“I hope he survives,” Wannida Ma-asa said bluntly about her husband Anucha Angkaew, who was snatched from an Israeli avocado farm.
Suphatra Asanok, 28, said “a senior [Buddhist] monk told us to hold a rite to worship our ancestors,” to thank them for protecting her boyfriend Phadung Buddmo, 26.
He survived two bullets in his back during a Hamas assault on a farmworkers’ camp, the Bangkok Post reported.
Thailand’s dead have yet to be flown home for cremation or burial.
“Since most Israeli security and emergency personnel have been dispatched to battle areas, there are not many able to assist in retrieving dead bodies,” the Post said.
More than 7,000 terrified Thai workers in Israel want to evacuate to Thailand, but an additional 23,000 hope to remain there.
Some men did not want to leave Israel because they needed to reimburse hundreds of dollars owed to Thai middlemen who helped them get work on farms and construction crews in the desert.
Thai workers’ contracts are often for five years and relatively expensive to arrange if a Thai broker is used to secure the job.
If the contract is broken by a fleeing employee, the laborer could remain in debt to the broker.
The Hamas-Israel war is the first international crisis for Thailand’s newly elected premier, Srettha Thavisin, a former real estate tycoon leading a broad coalition government replete with military-aligned parties.
Srettha flew to Malaysia on October 11 to meet Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who supports the Palestinians’ political demands.
“The confiscation of land and property belonging to the Palestinian people is done relentlessly by the [Israeli government],” Anwar said in a recent post on X, describing desert feuds dating back to the mid-20th century.
“Palestinians have been subjected to the prolonged illegal occupation, blockade and suffering, the desecration of al-Aqsa [mosque], as well as the politics of dispossession at the hands of Israel as the occupier,” a Malaysian foreign ministry statement said on October 8.
Thailand reportedly asked Muslim-majority Malaysia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and other nations to convince Hamas to release the Thais.
“Hamas would not harm foreigners, because they are not involved, and it does not want to expand the disputes,” Thai spokeswoman Kanchana Patarachoke told reporters.
After the Hamas assault, Thailand’s foreign ministry issued a neutral statement:
“Thailand calls upon all parties involved to refrain from any actions that would further escalate tensions, and joins the international community in condemning any use of violence and indiscriminate attacks.”
In 2021, two Thai workers died during a Hamas rocket assault on Israel.
Srettha’s visit to Malaysia – he is also Thailand’s new finance minister – was part of an earlier scheduled tour including Hong Kong, Brunei and Singapore to discuss regional trade and investment and reportedly focused mostly on those issues.
Thailand, meanwhile, suffers a smoldering separatist war by Malay-Thai Islamists along its southern border with Malaysia.
Bangkok’s longstanding strategy is to “contain” the southern violence, which has killed more than 7,000 people on all sides during the past few decades.
Israel expressed disappointment in 2012 when Bangkok recognized Palestine as a nation with pre-1967 borders, and established diplomatic relations by endorsing the Palestinians’ 1988 declaration of independence.
Bangkok’s behind-the-scenes nonconfrontational diplomatic skills, however, have proven stunningly successful with Palestinian Islamists in the past.
Fifty years ago, armed Palestinian Black September guerrillas seized the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, threatened to execute the six Israeli diplomats inside, and blow up the building.
Black September listed 36 Palestinian prisoners’ names and said they must be freed from Israel’s jails and sent to Egypt or the gunmen would kill their six hostages.
Simultaneously, in an elaborate ceremony across town, then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej was appointing his son as crown prince and heir to the throne.
Thai military officials and Egypt’s ambassador to Thailand told the guerrillas it would be disastrous if the crisis tarnished the auspiciousness of the prince’s December 28, 1972 royal investiture.
“We are most sorry we did not know this day. We love your king. He is very good and beautiful,” one of the Palestinian guerrillas told the Bangkok Post.
“We hope the Thai people will know our problem. This embassy is our land,” he said after hanging a Palestinian flag in the embassy’s window so it could be seen outside.
An agreement was reached, the hostages were quickly freed and the Palestinians flew to Cairo.
Thailand’s then-Supreme Command Chief of Staff, Air Chief Marshal Dawee Chullasapya, said at the time:
“They were sorry. They said they did not care for Israel, but they did care for Thailand and its king. They did not want to create a misunderstanding between the Arabs and Thailand.”
The gunmen invited Dawee to dinner inside the Israeli Embassy to work out a deal.
“I brought in curried rice and chicken,” Dawee said at the time. “I had [to eat] a mouthful before they touched it. I negotiated with them all night and suggested they should be our guests on a flight to Cairo.”
Before they flew to Egypt, one Black September gunman said: “I hope some of the Thai people will become Palestinian commandos with us.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.