Ukraine is setting up a foreign legion, and thousands have reportedly volunteered from countries across the world. But recruiting fighters in Southeast Asia may prove difficult for Kyiv.
“I lived in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, for two decades. I love Ukraine and the Ukrainians, I want to support their just cause,” said Pham Van Hai, a Vietnamese army veteran from the southern province of Vung Tau who has volunteered to join the foreign legion in Ukraine.
Hai, who studied at the Kyiv Institute of Civil Aviation in the 1980s, has sent a couple of petitions to the Vietnamese government asking to be allowed to leave for Ukraine.
“I will pay my own air ticket and all expenses, I only need their permission,” he told RFA, adding: “No reply yet but I suspect they won’t give it to me.”
Vietnam had endured many wars in the past, and tens of thousands of Vietnamese were among the Indochinese contingent fighting in the French foreign legion in World War I and World War II.
Hai is one of dozens Vietnamese citizens who have been communicating online to express their willingness to fight for Ukraine – notwithstanding the growing death toll and destruction following the Russian invasion. The actual number of Vietnamese volunteers is unknown as their action may be illegal under Vietnam’s Criminal Code.
Article 425 of the code stipulates that “any person who works as a mercenary to fight against a nation or sovereign territory shall face a penalty of 5 to 15 years’ imprisonment.”
In fact, there are differences between mercenaries, who are contracted to fight but are not formally part of the military of the state they are fighting for; and legionnaires who are recruited as members of a state’s armed forces although they are not its citizens.
Regardless of those distinctions, Russia has warned that all foreigners who want to fight for Ukraine are “not combatants under international humanitarian law and not entitled to prisoner of war status” but will be treated as criminals.
On March 3, the Russian Ministry of Defense said: “We urge citizens of foreign countries planning to go to fight for the Kyiv nationalist regime to think twice before the trip.”
Ukraine’s international legion
The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Feb. 27 said his country was establishing an “international legion” for foreigners who want to fight for the nation and appealed to international volunteers to join.
By March 7, “more than 20,000 people from 52 countries have already volunteered to fight in Ukraine,” according to Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Kuleba, however, did not say how many of them had already arrived in Ukraine. Nor did he name their home countries.
Ukrainian embassies and consulates across the world have been actively rallying support, and a website was launched to provide detailed step-by-step instructions on how to join the international legion.
People with combat experience are encouraged to join what Ukraine calls “the resistance against the Russian occupants and fight for global security.”
According to media reports, volunteers are already arriving in Ukraine, mostly from European countries such as Lithuania, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France.
Ukraine received more than 3,000 applications from U.S. citizens who want to join the fight against Russia, according to a defense official at the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, D.C. The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory still formally advises all Americans not to travel to Ukraine.
Southeast Asia’s response
Zelenskyy’s appeal was also heard in Southeast Asia, where some citizens want to join the Ukrainian defense legion although governments are generally against the idea.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said his government “will not allow anyone to go to Ukraine.”
Speaking at a hospital inauguration ceremony, Hun Sen urged Cambodian citizens to “not pour gasoline on the fire”
“I will not allow our people to die in Ukraine. Our constitution does not allow that,” the prime minister said.
“The only ones who can go abroad for [such] missions are our Blue Helmet troops, but it’s under the auspices of humanitarianism of the United Nations,” he added.
Singapore is taking a similar stance with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan saying on Feb. 28 that “Singapore cannot support the promotion or organization of armed groups, whatever their justification, into other countries.”
Balakrishnan reminded Singaporean people that “your duty is to Singapore,” and “to defend our national interests.”
Thailand seems to be the only country that doesn’t hold its citizens back.
Thai government spokeswoman Ratchada Thanadirek was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying that “there is no law preventing Thai citizens from joining foreign volunteer forces.”
“But people should consider the potential grave danger as Russian forces pound Ukrainian cities with heavy weapons,” she was quoted as warning the Thais.
Hundreds of Thai citizens have sent the Ukrainian embassy emails to apply to sign up for the international legion, according to a Facebook group created about the endeavor.
A Ukrainian embassy official told BenarNews last week that scores of Thai citizens had phoned the embassy in Bangkok, and around 40 of them had shown up there to express interest in volunteering.
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