Brief: Hamas’s Release of Thailand’s Hostages Accomplished Through Thai Professor in Iran

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 4

Professor Lerpong Sayed. (Source: Channel News Asia)

Executive Summary

  • Thailand has managed to secure the release of its 18 hostages from Hamas with the help of a Thai professor at al-Mustafa International University in Qom, who acted as a mediator.
  • Thailand has avoided taking an explicitly critical position on Hamas, despite the fact that it lost 34 nationals in Hamas’s October 7 attack—behind only Israel and France.

Thailand found itself embroiled in the Israel–Hamas conflict after at least 18 Thai hostages were believed to have been taken into Gaza. These hostages were among the thousands of Thai laborers who have become integral to the Israeli economy and work on farms, including kibbutzim, near the Gazan border (Nikkei, October 18, 2023). Nonetheless, the hostages were comparatively fortunate compared to the large number of Thais who were killed during the Hamas attacks. Estimates from nearly one month after the attacks indicated that Thai individuals made up the second largest group of foreign nationals lost in the attacks after the French (34 Thai to 39 French persons, respectively) (Bangkok Post, November 4, 2023).

Thailand had a special asset that aided its negotiations with Hamas. Professor Lerpong Sayed is a Thai national who gives lectures in political science at al-Mustafa International University in the holy Iranian city of Qom. As such, Sayed has ties to Iranian theologians and, more broadly, the ruling ayatollahs in Iran, who themselves have sway over Iran’s proxies in Hamas. The US government has also alleged that al-Mustafa International University maintains dozens of international branches that facilitate Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Forces (QF) operations through recruiting international students (US State Department, December 8, 2020). Al-Mustafa International University has also engaged in various outreach activities with Thai universities and their students (Assumption University of Thailand, June 23, 2022).

Whether or not Sayed is directly or indirectly connected with other entities in Iran, he was the key facilitator in liaising with Hamas to ensure the Thai hostages’ release. He did this by reaching out to “associates” with some access to Hamas leadership and establishing an informal group to intervene on behalf of Thai hostages. This group communicated with Hamas about the hostages at least five times before their release. The result was not only the Thai hostages’ release, however. According to Sayed, they also established a sustainable line of communication with Hamas (Voice of America, December 15, 2023). In interviews since their release, Sayed has continued to express sympathy toward Hamas and the Palestinian cause more broadly, even while acknowledging that as many as 39 Thais were killed during the October 7 attack. He has not indicated that he would take advantage of his Hamas contacts to advocate for the release of any hostages beyond Thai citizens. Nevertheless, the key, according to Sayed, was the fact his part of the dialogue with Hamas was conducted as a “Thai Muslim.” He suggested that “high-ranking” Iranian government officials also became involved in the discussions (YouTube/Sky News, November 29, 2023).

In Thailand, Sayed does not appear to be involved in other negotiations with the Thai government. This includes Bankok’s attempts to resolve the conflict with southern Thailand’s Muslim Malay militants, where Malaysia acts as a mediator between the various parties (Benar News, November 28, 2023). These negotiations are still ongoing. The Malaysian facilitator, Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, announced in November 2023 that he plans to meet the new head of the Thai delegation, Chatchai Bangchuad. Bangchuad is the first civilian to head the Thai government’s negotiation team in this format.

Despite their differences, the negotiations over Hamas’s release of Thai hostages and with southern Thai Muslim Malay militants are in some ways related. The Thai government understands that Thai Muslims overwhelmingly support the Palestinian cause, if not also Hamas itself (i24NEWS, November 7, 2023). As a result, Thailand has avoided taking an explicitly critical position on Hamas, which may have provided the group with more of an incentive to release the Thai hostages.