The Latest on Southeast Asia: October 12, 2023

On October 7, Hamas militants launched a surprise attack against Israel. With unprecedented sophistication and coordination, Hamas offensives killed over 1,000 Israelis while over 100 were taken hostage. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by strong international condemnation of Hamas, declared war on the militant group on October 8. Though thousands of miles removed, the Israel-Hamas conflict presents significant diplomatic and logistical challenges for Southeast Asian nations.

ASEAN member states, except for Myanmar and Laos, each made statements calling for an end to the violence. They varied significantly in their messaging and perceptions of the crisis. The crucial fault line lies with the differing stances on Israeli statehood and support of Palestine. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, all Muslim-majority nations, do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo cited “the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel” as the “root cause of the conflict;” while several Islamic organizations held pro-Palestine demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Malaysia condemned the violence while decrying Israel as an occupier and stressing its support for Palestine. Brunei underscored its solidarity with Palestine, and called for an end to the violence.

The remaining ASEAN nations maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, which is growing its trade and defense ties to the region. Israel recently signed its first free trade agreement in Southeast Asia with Vietnam in July 2023. It is a chief arms supplier in the region and a key supporter of the Philippines’ military modernization efforts. In the past, it bolstered Singapore’s fledgling defense forces. Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore condemned the Hamas attacks and expressed their condolences to Israel. Vietnam and Cambodia offered more neutral statements, emphasizing the safety of their citizens and the importance of a cessation of violence without explicitly mentioning Palestine.

Several Southeast Asian states have a significant number of overseas workers and students in Israel and their safety is of chief concern to those governments. As of this writing, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines each reported civilian deaths from the ongoing fighting. Hamas militants are also holding some of their citizens hostage. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on October 10 stated that at least one Filipino may have been captured by Hamas militants. On October 11, the Thai Foreign Ministry announced that Hamas had captured 14 Thai nationals, and Bangkok is negotiating their release with the help of Malaysia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Beyond civilian rescue operations, Southeast Asian governments are drafting plans for emergency evacuations as necessary. The logistics of a mass evacuation of Southeast Asians at this scale will prove to be complicated. With large citizen populations in Israel, Thailand and the Philippines are currently spearheading efforts to evacuate their citizens. Thailand is preparing to repatriate nearly 3,000 Thai citizens, 10 percent of the 30,000 Thais living and working in Israel. It will employ a mix of commercial airlines and military aircraft for these evacuations. Similarly, there are between 27,000 and 30,000 Philippine workers in Israel, though most are far from the conflict zones and repatriation requests are yet to be filed.

Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 

For more political, economic, and security analysis on the region, check out our blog series, The Latest on Southeast Asia. To hear the latest news on the region and hear from Southeast Asia experts, listen and subscribe to the Southeast Asia Radio podcast on any streaming platform.