By Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) -Politicians from Thailand’s Muslim minority have held talks with Hamas in an effort to secure the release of around a dozen Thai hostages held by the Palestinian Islamist group in Israeli-besieged Gaza, a former lawmaker said on Friday.
At least 23 Thai nationals were among more than 240 people taken captive by Hamas militants when they burst out of Gaza on Oct. 7 and went on a killing and kidnapping spree through southwestern Israeli communities. Israel responded by relentlessly bombarding the enclave, then invading it.
Areepen Uttarasin, a veteran Thai politician and former education minister, said he travelled to the Iranian capital Tehran and met senior Hamas officials there on Oct. 26 for over two hours.
“They told me that the Thai hostages are living comfortably and are out of danger,” Areepen told Reuters, declining to name the Hamas officials he met. “I told them that I am here not to negotiate but simply to ask for their release.”
The 23 Thais form the largest group of captives in Gaza from any single foreign country.
Thailand’s foreign ministry did not confirm the politicians’ talks with Hamas but said it welcomed assistance from all parties as the government seeks the release of the Thai hostages via multiple channels.
The foreign ministry said Qatar, Iran and Egypt had agreed to formally convey Thailand’s request for the release of the hostages to Hamas immediately.
“I wanted them to convey that to Hamas, because I’m worried Hamas doesn’t know that they are just agricultural workers,” Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara Pranpree said on Friday after visiting the Middle East earlier this week.
Of the more than 1,400 people Israel says were killed in Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage, at least 32 were Thai.
About 30,000 Thai labourers work in Israel, mainly in the farm sector, and 7,200 of those have been repatriated since the Gaza war erupted, according to the foreign ministry.
Last week’s meeting in Tehran was arranged through long-standing ties that Thailand’s parliamentary speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha and other members of its small Muslim community enjoy with Iran, Areepen said.
“This was not a government-to-government channel but it’s through special personal relations,” said Areepen, 72, who like Wan Noor hails from Thailand’s Muslim-majority deep south region where a slow-burn insurgency has simmered for decades.
About 90% of Thailand’s 70 million people are Buddhist and have co-existed largely peacefully with its Muslim minority.
At the Tehran engagement, during which the two sides also prayed together, Areepen said he emphasised to Hamas officials that Thailand was not a part of the conflict.
“They saw us in a friendly light,” he said, referring to the Hamas officials. “They were amazed at how us Muslim rose to high positions in Thailand even when there are few of us.”
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Chayut Setboonsarng; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Martin Petty and Mark Heinrich)