Far-off Thailand might not seem an obvious place to recruit an international volunteer force to defend against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a former Thai Air Force conscript who is now an advocate for political change, Chanaphong Phongpai, said that the cause is a natural fit for members of the democracy movement that emerged in 2020 to protest a military-backed government in the Southeast Asian country.
Phongpai, 28, said that he felt upset for the Ukrainian people, particularly after reports of Russian attacks on civilians.
“I have been involved in demanding democracy in my country... and opposing tyranny,” Phongpai said.
“They [Ukrainians] are also fighting for democracy, and is now invaded by a superpower and a tyrant, so I asked myself what I can do for them,” he said.
Phongpai and five friends visited the Ukrainian embassy in Bangkok on Wednesday and met with a staff member after registering on a site gathering information on potential recruits.
In a single day this week, a Thai-language online group gathered more than 2,000 names of people interested in volunteering for Ukraine, the group’s organizer said.
The staff member who met with Phongpai’s group, who asked that she not be named, said that officials are considering applicants who need to submit online documents, including proof of military training and a clean criminal record.
The staff member also asked potential volunteers to apply by e-mail, not call or visit the embassy.
After completing his mandatory Thai military service, Phongpai worked as a private security consultant. He said that his training from two years in the air force could help the Ukrainians evacuate civilians, guard areas and secure supply lines.
“Other men and I have some basics weapons training, so I think I might be useful to help save the Ukrainians from this crisis,” he said.
His more recent experiences in clashing with Thai riot police during anti-government protests could also be useful.
“We need to switch from holding bottle bombs to holding guns,” he said.
Thai government spokeswoman Ratchada Thanadirek said that there is no law preventing Thai citizens from joining foreign volunteer forces, but people should consider the danger as Russian forces pound Ukrainian cities with heavy weapons.
Thailand was among 141 countries at the UN General Assembly that voted on Wednesday to reprimand Russia for invading Ukraine, and demand that Moscow stop fighting and withdraw its military forces.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has otherwise maintained a neutral stance since the Russian invasion began on Thursday last week.
It is not clear whether Phongpai or his friends would be accepted into the Ukrainian “international legion,” but they have begun to prepare.
This week, he has been increasing his usual running regimen to ensure that he is in peak physical condition.
“We fight for democracy here. They fight for their democracy there,” he said. “We are like friends. Its the same feeling, the same ideology.”
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