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Asean's response to Israel-Hamas war

More than ever before, the current Israeli-Hamas war has revealed the starkly different positions and views held by the 10 Asean members towards the abiding conflict in the Middle East. Asean has not issued a joint statement over the brutal attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which launched a large-scale offensive from the Gaza Strip on southern Israel on Oct 7.

Over the past decades, Asean has maintained a consistent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly stating that a comprehensive, just, and sustainable solution would be needed to achieve peace and stability in the volatile Middle East region.

In the latest Asean joint communique issued in July 2023 during the annual foreign ministerial meeting, Asean urged both sides to work together towards the resumption of negotiations. Apart from other issues, such as the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the most cited regional issue in the annual Asean ministerial meeting.

Even though Asean members have divergent views over the current conflict, the grouping is united in its support for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people for an independent state of Palestine and believes that its people must live side by side with Israel in peace and security based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In short, Asean supports the two-state solution.

Among the Asean members, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand have closer ties with Israel, while other Asean countries maintain a lower profile. Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia — all Islamic nations — have traded with Israel but do not have official diplomatic ties. In particular, Malaysian passport holders are not allowed to travel to Israel.

While Singapore has strongly condemned the attack by Palestinian militants on Israel and called for an immediate end to the violence, Indonesia and Malaysia have been less circumspect. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it is deeply concerned at the escalation of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and urged an immediate end to the violence.

According to Bernama, the national Malaysia news agency, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has reiterated Malaysia’s commitment to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Non-governmental organisations from both countries have voluntary workers in the Gaza Strip. Indonesia has built a hospital there as well.

Given the reality on the ground, Israel welcomes migrant workers from non-Muslim Asean countries. Both the Philippines and Thailand have large numbers of workers in kibbutzim and moshavs located in various parts of Israel. There are over 30,000 Filipino workers in Israel, while Thailand has around 26,000. Thai Ministry of Labour statistics show 12,665 Thais are working in the high-risk zones in southern Israel.

In comparison, only 137 Filipinos were working in the Gaza enclave and adjacent areas in southern Israel, according to Rappler.com. This explains why there were high casualties among the Thai workers.

According to the latest figure cited by the Thai PBS World yesterday, 28 Thais have been killed and 16 injured while 17 are held hostage. As of yesterday, the Thai casualties were the highest among the 100-plus foreigners confirmed killed from 47 countries during the attack by Hamas. America had the second-highest number of deaths, with 27 people killed. Within the Asean bloc, outside of Thailand, only three Filipinos and a Cambodian student were killed. The combined death toll of Palestinians and Israelis is well over 3,500, Al Jazeera reported yesterday.

During his Friday meeting with Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, Orna Sagiv, Israel’s ambassador to Thailand, said that 99% of Thai workers have been relocated from the so-called “red zones” to safe zones 4 kilometres away. But she did not elaborate. Mr Srettha also asked the ambassador to fact-check a video clip of Thai workers allegedly forced to work during the crisis.

With the ongoing war and sustained tension between Israel and Palestinians, Thai authorities must prepare Thai workers who want to work in Israel to understand the risky ground situation. After Taiwan, Israel ranks second as the most popular location for workers due to the good wages, with most receiving at least 50,000-60,000 baht per month. The Israeli kibbutzim and moshavs, local terms to call farm communities and cooperatives, prefer Thai workers because of their solid work ethic and agricultural expertise.

Furthermore, other nationalities are not willing to work in risky areas. In July 2020, Thailand and Israel signed a new agreement on temporary employment of Thai labour in agriculture. The new framework allows Thai workers to work uninterrupted after their joint contract expires, which was administrated by the International Organization of Migration under the Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers (TIC), signed in 2012. The agreement increases the protection of the rights of Thai workers in the agricultural farmlands sector.

Concerning the safety and welfare of Thai workers, more needs to be done by Tel Aviv and Bangkok to provide safeguards and protections for workers who need to work in unpredictable, life-threatening circumstances. There was much confusion in the earlier hours right after the Hamas surprise attacks on the Thai community of crucial next steps to be taken.

At the meeting with Mr Srettha, the Israeli ambassador reiterated that Thai workers enjoyed all labour rights, including respect for human rights. However, most Thai workers are not well informed about those rights due to their lack of English language skills.

In addition, not all Israeli employers abide by and follow the rules. Last week, numerous video clips on social media showed the condition of Thai workers either on duty or running away from the conflict. One video clip went viral showing a worker opining sarcastically that the Thai workers could learn and do anything when they come to Israel, not only in the agricultural field, because they have to follow orders. The man did a selfie video showing him cleaning a huge ground floor of a new warehouse. BBC Thai recently also did investigative reports on the plight of these workers.

Approximately 7,000 workers have requested to be brought home, while more than 100 Thais returned safely over the weekend. The Ministry of Labour said all the Thais would be repatriated as soon as possible.

In the case of 17 Thai hostages, Mr Sretha said the government has tried using all diplomatic, military, intelligence, and nongovernmental organisations and its network to help secure their release. Thailand is not part of the conflict and has, over the years, maintained cordial ties with the civil society organisations helping the Palestinians based in Thailand.

However, given the new phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its aftermath, the fate of Thai workers is hanging in the balance. As such, there is an urgent need for both countries to review their labour cooperation and safety measures to avoid any future casualties.

The government must also ascertain that job replacement firms are not duping or exploiting their clients. Some good lessons and practices could be learned from the Philippine government’s labour policies and comprehensive protective measures for its overseas workers, especially in the Middle East.

Mr Srettha is scheduled to attend the inaugural Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh on Friday after his trip to China. The prime minister will also have the opportunity to discuss the way forward with Saudi Arabia and other GCC counterparts to expedite the repatriation of Thai workers through their territories. The GCC members are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. The Asean-GCC ties were established in 1990. But since 2019, the bilateral ties have been boosted through Bahrain’s signatory to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). During the past two years, all the rest of the GCC members also acceded TAC.

This summit is significant as it will define the future of Asean ties with the Middle East after decades of inertia. Granted, the timing, the siege of Gaza, and the ongoing war would be top of the agenda of their discussions. Both Asean and the GCC have been eager to deepen their relations and economic cooperation, especially energy security. The GCC members are expected to play more significant strategic roles in the current geopolitical landscape dominated by superpower rivalry.

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