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How Buddhist Thailand Freed Its Hostages From Hamas

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Buddhist-majority Thailand gained the release of 23 Thai hostages from Hamas, the most foreigners freed as of November 30, after Bangkok boldly began direct negotiations with the Palestinian militant group's representatives in Iran nearly two months ago.

How did Thailand succeed while many of the other foreign hostages have still not been freed?

Thailand's quiet, bold, and direct diplomacy appeared to be a big key to their success.

This Southeast Asian nation had the most foreigners employed near the Israel-Gaza border, so the numbers were in their favor when Hamas decided to include foreign hostages in the releases.

Bangkok meanwhile also networked with United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and others for their freedom.

The October 7 assault into Israel by Hamas killed more than 1,400 Israelis and foreigners, including at least 33 impoverished Thai agricultural laborers contracted to desert zones along the Israel-Gaza border.

Additionally, Hamas seized about 250 hostages -- mostly Israelis -- and imprisoned them in Gaza at gunpoint including about 32 Thais.

In a small batches, Hamas has released a total of 70 Israelis, 23 Thais, two Russians, and one Filipino, as of November 30.

Hamas and other Palestinian militants still held about 160 hostages, including about nine Thais, the foreign ministry said.

Initial reports said Hamas seized 15 Argentinians, alongside 12 Americans, a dozen Germans, six French, and six Russians, plus about 35 other foreign nationals -- but the numbers may change when more details emerge.

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"The timely initiative of the speaker of the Thai House of Representatives, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, to send a delegation of Sunni and Shia leaders to Tehran and negotiate with Iran and Hamas directly, contributed substantially to this success," a former Thai foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, said in an interview.

"The direct channel of communication with Hamas in Iran was useful," Mr. Kantathi said.

The three-man Thai delegation flew to Iran on October 27.

The delegates were led by House Speaker Wan's Sunni Muslim representative.

About 99 percent of Thailand's seven million Muslims are Sunni. One percent are Shia.

The delegation included Lerpong Syed representing his brother Saiyid Sulaiman Husaini who leads Thailand's Shia community.

Areepen Uttarsin, a former member of parliament from southern Thailand's Muslim-majority Narathiwat province, was also a delegate.

The three delegates landed in Tehran and were invited to "the headquarters of the Hamas envoy in Tehran, Iran," Mr. Saiyid Husaini's Facebook page said.

Meanwhile, "Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin sent Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara to the UAE and Egypt," Mr. Kantathi said.

"Parnpree also met with the Iranians while in the UAE.

"An emphasis was made that Thailand was not an enemy to any party. Thailand was not a part of the conflict.

"Thailand has good relations with the United States, Israel, Iran, as well as the Palestinians," Mr. Kantathi said.

Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian affairs, agreed.

"Officially, Thailand has tried to stay neutral between Israel on one side, and Iran/Hamas on the other," Mr. Chambers said in an interview.

"The efforts of this [Thai Muslim delegation] team were mostly responsible for the Thai hostages' release."

Despite the polarizing international politics on all sides of the Palestinian conflict, "Bangkok will likely continue to try to balance its relations between Israel and Muslim countries of the Middle East," Mr. Chambers said.

Prime Minister Srettha said on October 29, "Thailand is a neutral country and not part of the conflict. We only want our people to be safe, and the hostages released as soon as possible."

Earlier, shortly after the Hamas assault, Thailand's foreign ministry said:

"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."

"I'm so happy, I'm so glad, I can't describe my feeling at all," Thongkoon Onkaew told Reuters on Sunday (Nov. 26) after seeing her son among the four latest Thai hostages released by Hamas on November 25, along with 13 more Israelis and one Filipino.

"That's my son! My son!" Ms. Thongkoon said when she saw Natthaporn Onkaew smiling along with several others in a van, in a photo displayed by Hamas.

"All they wanted was to take a shower and call their relatives," Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on X [formerly Twitter].

"They were admitted to [Israel's] Shamir Medical Center Hospital. Thanks must go to the foreign ministry and our security agencies," Mr. Srettha said.

Many of the Thais working on farms and in factories in Israel were in debt to Thai money lenders, to pay various fees to arrange their contracts and other expenses.

The Thai government said it would help finance their return and alleviate their debts.

***

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 at
https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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