By Panu Wongcha-um and Jiraporn Kuhakan
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Far-off Thailand might not seem an obvious place for recruits to Ukraine’s efforts to raise an international volunteer force to defend against Russia’s invasion.
But for former Thai Air Force conscript turned political activist Chanaphong “Ball” Phongpai, the cause is a natural fit for members of the pro-democracy movement that emerged in 2020 to protest a military-backed government in the Southeast Asian country.
Chanaphong, 28, said 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,” Chanaphong told Reuters in an interview.
“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.
Chanaphong and five friends visited the Ukrainian embassy in Bangkok on Wednesday and met with a staff member there 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 organiser told Reuters.
The Ukrainian embassy in Bangkok did not reply to a request for details from Reuters.
But the staff member who met with Chanaphong’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 email, not call or visit the embassy.
After completing his mandatory Thai military service, Chanaphong worked as a private security consultant. He said 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 that people should consider the potential grave danger as Russian forces pound Ukrainian cities with heavy weapons.
Thailand was among 141 countries at the United Nations 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 Feb. 24.
It is not clear whether Chanaphong or his friends will be accepted into the Ukraine “international legion”, but they already begun to prepare.
This week, he’s been upping his usual running regimen to make sure 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.”
(Writing by Panu Wongcha-um. Editing by Kay Johnson and Gerry Doyle)