Friday, July 19, 2024
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New shifts in Thai Middle East policy

The past five weeks have been a hellish time for the new Srettha government, with 39 Thai workers killed and many others injured and kidnapped in the Israel-Hamas war. Despite Thais being categorised as "innocent", "unarmed", and "non-lethal", they have suffered the highest casualties among foreigners in Israel.

Thai migrant workers have flowed to work in southern Israel over the years for jobs despite confronting extreme conditions that have put their lives at risk. So far, the government has focused on repatriation and compensation. That is far from enough. The government must tackle the root causes. People want to see the government working to tackle the fundamental problem of finding ways to encourage Thai migrant workers to be able to work in southern Israel despite the extreme risk involved.

To their credit, those at Government House, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Labour have been able to repatriate nearly 8,000 Thai workers via 35 flights since the Oct 7 Hamas attack.

Of course, there were some delays caused by bureaucratic procedures and the local security situation. Better coordination among aviation authorities, in particular between the Thai air force and commercial flight operators, would have sped up the process.

In addition, through personal connections, Thai parliamentarians and Islamic non-governmental organisations have dispatched their delegates to negotiate for the release of the Thai hostages. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latest tally of Thais abducted is 24, a number confirmed by Israeli authorities. Obviously, nobody knows exactly how many Thais are being held captive among the estimated 224 hostages. The number could increase as the Israeli Defence Forces have intensified the ground assault in Gaza.

Thai workers have become a major component of Israel’s agricultural industry. About 90% of foreign workers in the agricultural sector are Thais, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Labour. Before the attack, about 29,000 Thais worked in kibbutzim. Currently, at least 18,000 workers are still stranded in Israel, while some prefer to stay, fearing that they will lose their jobs and future contracts if they return to Thailand.

Their decision is understandable. Each worker spent a great sum of money to secure a placement in Israel, and this brought with it unpaid debts and loans. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these workers get the best deal and protection. Critics view the current deal as not good enough, given the situation on the ground. It is imperative that the government dissuades Thais from working in Israel unless it has worked out contingency plans that will provide them with full safety and protection.

Most importantly, Thailand must make sure Israel pays the “deposit funds”, which has been delayed for many years for Thai workers. The failure to do so constitutes unfair treatment as all Thais who have finished their five-year and three-month contracts should receive the money without delay. Israel has delayed the implementation of the deposit fund since 2017 without any progress despite appeals from the Thai government. This practice does not augur well for Israel’s international image as a law-abiding country that respects human rights.

Truth be told, judging from the immediate situation of the Gaza War, the Thai government should temporarily halt all work contracts in the red zones and immediately begin to work on new safety measures for Thai workers. The next step is to renegotiate the labour contract that the labour ministries of both countries inked in 2020. Now, with the new Israeli security policy towards the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, no Thais are safe. Worse still, in the eyes of Palestinians, Thais are considered accomplices of Israel.

In a similar vein, the Thai labour authorities must overhaul their approach to the export of migrant workers abroad. Thai workers must be trained in both language efficiency and general knowledge about the countries they work in. The workers in Israel do not have a full understanding of their workplaces. Better intra-agency coordination with the Israeli authorities is needed. There should be more transparency over working conditions and placements as well as other measures that would provide insurance and safety nets for their lives.

Without the Hamas attack and the high number of casualties, very few Thais would have known about the fate of Thai workers and the nature and scope of the Thai-Israeli relationship. Next year is the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Thailand is also very considerate (kraeng-jai) towards Israel because the Labour Ministry wants to maintain the high quota of Thai workers there. Above all, Israel is a close friend of the US, so Bangkok does not want to upend ties with Israel.

Furthermore, Thailand wants know-how from Israel about scientific knowledge, military technology, and intelligence gathering. Agricultural-technological development also benefits the Thai agricultural sector. Therefore, there is close collaboration with Israel in a variety of areas. Most importantly, Thailand remains the biggest tourism market for Israel. Before the pandemic, an average of 160,000 Israelis visited Thailand annually, the largest in the Middle East. This year, more than 35,000 visitors have come to Thailand.

Doubtless, the current conflict will have far-reaching implications for Thai foreign policy towards the Middle East. As Thailand has dramatically improved its ties with Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab countries, Thai workers and their perceived roles, real or imagined, in Israel could also have a negative impact on Thailand. Even fake news of a Thai mercenary fighting with the Israeli Defence Forces is a case in point that adds to the complexity of Middle East politics and the dynamics of Thai-Israeli ties in relation to the Muslim world. As such, it is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries would employ Thai workers who used to work in Israel.

Despite Thailand unwaveringly supporting the two-state solution that foresees the state of Israel existing side by side with a Palestinian state, Bangkok abstained from voting on the UNGA resolution on the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, which was included in the same resolution last November. Furthermore, Thailand did not support the UNGA resolution on raising the flags of non-member observer states in the UN during the 69th UN General Assembly.

However, there have been some shifts in the pattern of Thai voting. There were two UNGA resolutions that Bangkok voted in support of, namely the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.

With the new geopolitical landscape, Thai-Israeli ties will never be the same. Thailand and Israel should immediately sit down and comprehensively review their relations. Issues related to labour, defence and security, trade and investment are the priority. The Working Group Dialogue should also be upgraded from the permanent secretary for foreign affairs to the ministerial level to speed up the decision-making process.

Thailand does have the necessary agency leverage to engage Israel in more beneficial and positive ways. Indeed, bilaterally speaking, Israel’s national interests would be affected by diminished Thai cooperation, in particular, workers in the kibbutzim farms and other agricultural cooperatives. After the Gaza War ends, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get other foreigners to work in the risky parts of Israel.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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