By Wilawan Watcharasakwej
A delegation from Thailand’s mainly Muslim far south held talks with Hamas in Iran to call for the release of 22 Thais taken hostage during the Palestinian group’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, a top delegate said Wednesday.
Areepen Uttarasin, an adviser to House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha and the leader of the delegation, said representatives from Hamas – whom he did not identify for security concerns, promised to release the farm hands from Thailand “because they want those Thais to come back home.”
The Thais were abducted from agricultural areas in southern Israel when the Palestinian militant group broke through a fence sealing off the Gaza Strip from the Jewish state during the attacks that left hundreds of Israeli civilians dead, according to reports.
“We said to them, we came there to beg for mercy for the Thai workers because they have nothing to do with the war,” Areepen told reporters at Parliament on Wednesday after the delegation returned home from Iran on Tuesday.
“They told us to inform their relatives that they were treated well and faced no hardship. But to fix the release date may not be possible because they may be harmed by the opponent’s bombardment,” he said. “So they [Hamas] are waiting for a good time and will release them at once then.”
During their trip to Iran that began on Oct. 26, the delegation from Thailand’s Deep South met with Hamas officials and an adviser to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, officials said. Iran backs Hamas, which Israel, the United States and other Western countries have branded a terrorist organization.
Since the surprise attacks on Oct. 7, Israel has hit back hard with constant aerial bombardments of densely populated Gaza. In the past several days, the Israeli military has launched ground strikes into the Palestinian enclave, which is controlled by Hamas.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the Palestinian death toll had reached more than 8,700, citing information from Gaza’s health ministry in Gaza, while more than 125 Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank. Israel reported that more than 1,400 Israelis had been killed.
Thailand’s house speaker is from the Deep South, a predominantly Malay Muslim border region where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades. It was not immediately clear whether the government of Srettha Thavisin, the new prime minister of Buddhist-majority Thailand, had approved the trip.
Areepen said he and his delegation were unable to speak with the 22 hostages during a meeting in Iran last Thursday.
“It’s dangerous to use a phone because when [the Israeli forces] catch the signal, bombardment will begin. They [Hamas] wanted to take me to see them, but I decided not to.”
On Wednesday, the Thai foreign ministry reported that 32 Thais had died, and 19 were injured along with the 22 who were abducted. More than 8,300 Thais have returned home while more than 21,500 Thais, mostly agricultural workers, remain in Israel.
Areepen said the Hamas leaders expressed concern about the group’s image after Thai workers claimed they were inhumanely attacked by Hamas fighters.
“They said the reported brutality against Thai nationals was not good news. When the barriers were broken and the fighters stormed in, there might have been chaotic shooting, but Hamas did not harm them,” Areepen said the leaders assured him.
Dr. M chats with Hamas leader
Meanwhile in neighboring Malaysia, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday posted to X a portion of a 15-minute phone conversation he had with Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, on Oct. 27.
“What is happening now is no longer war. It is genocide,” said the 98-year-old former PM, according to a transcript.
Mahathir, who was not meeting with Haniyeh as a representative of Malaysia’s government, is known to be a virulent critic of Israel and for making antisemitic remarks.
“I fully agree with you that this is not acts of terrorism [by Hamas] but this is the people of Palestine wanting to regain their own land. They are fighting for their own liberation,” he told Haniyeh, referring to the attacks on Oct. 7 and calling them “fully justified.”
According to a transcript of the conversation, “Ismail Haniyeh said what happened on Oct. 7 was not a sudden act but a retaliation [for] Israel’s aggression in Al Quds, the West Bank and Gaza, the continuous siege of Gaza and the escalation of occupation of settlements in West Bank as well as the storming of the Al-Aqsa [Mosque] on a daily basis.”
In 2020, when he was PM, Mahathir welcomed Haniyeh, the chief of Hamas’ political wing, to his office in Putrajaya.
The Oct. 26 meeting between the delegates from Thailand’s Deep South and Hamas leaders occurred days before Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara met on Tuesday with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, during a trip to Qatar, according to a Facebook post.
“On this occasion, the Thai side requested cooperation and support from the Iranian side to expedite for the release of the innocent hostages, both foreigners and Thais, for which the Iranian side confirmed its full support,” the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in the Facebook post.
The post did not release details of the Iranian official’s comment.
On Wednesday, Thai Prime Minister Srettha spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to another foreign ministry post.
“Srettha also expressed his gratitude to the Israeli authorities for the support rendered to the Thai side in facilitating the evacuation flights of Thai nationals during the past two weeks,” the post said. “In reply, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave assurances that the Thai workers currently residing in Israel will be well taken care of.”
Ili Shazwani Ihsan contributed to this report.