Philippine insurgents making soldiers of children, thanks to widespread alienation
Reuben James Barrete and Luke Lischin argue that, to end the tragedy of child soldiers, peace negotiations between the Philippine government and insurgent groups must make room for settling the grievances of the youth
Perhaps the most chilling images from the siege of Marawi, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, is of propaganda by the Maute group featuring children with guns.
Child soldiering is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. Like those previously recruited into the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), these child soldiers have affinities for the recruiting groups’ ideology and operations. Some were offered cash or access to marriageable women, while others followed or joined at the behest of older relatives. Coercion, though present, does not define their recruitment experience; most were enticed by the promise of a glamorous life beyond their social station.
The tragedy of child soldiers extends beyond the suffering of the children themselves; available analysis indicates that child soldiers prolong conflicts where deployed, because children, while less capable fighters than adults, are more impressionable, coercible and possibly less likely to give up.
However, varying factors enable child recruitment, including high poverty, government neglect and lack of basic social services. In special cases, abuses and injustices by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other government groups fuel children’s desires to avenge injustices or defend their communities. Community members who believe the armed groups’ ideologies affirm these sentiments. Allegations have surfaced that children are not only trained to hold arms and fight against state authorities but also undergo camp-based education, including social awareness exercises plus ideological and political programming to solidify their loyalty.
In countries with a youth bulge like the Philippines, children are a source of easily obtainable manpower. Armed groups consider them long-term investments, because when children mature during a conflict, they become better equipped physically and mentally for conflict. Consequently, child soldiers are frequently a stumbling block for peace processes, which seldom include provisions for demobilising and rehabilitating child fighters.
The International Labour Organisation conducted an assessment in Mindanao in 2012 showing that different armed groups – the Maoist New People’s Army, the MILF and Abu Sayyaf – admitted children aged 14 to 17. The ILO reported that of the 6,000 to 10,000 armed MILF members, at least 10 to 15 per cent are under age 18. If domestic insecurity increases, it is reasonable to expect the number of children in these groups to increase.
MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, despite the group’s past use of child soldiers, is unnerved by the rapid disillusionment of Moro youth with the Duterte administration. Under the Beningo Aquino administration, a Bangsamoro Basic Law was proposed that would grant the Muslim south self-rule, to seal the peace deal between the MILF and the government. Iqbal argues that the failure of the draft law to pass Congress, followed by Rodrigo Duterte’s faltering endorsement, causes young people to lose faith in the peace process. Though the MILF is attempting to shore up youth support, he laments that there is little it can do to stymie the growing appeal of insurgents like the Maute group.
Even the New People’s Army faces challenges regarding the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. Despite consistent claims that they follow the “no under-18” recruitment policy, the group is flush with young recruits, contrasting starkly with their political leadership’s advanced age.
Considering the vulnerability of Philippine youth to overtures from armed groups in a climate of political repression, the government must consider granting children and youth space to voice their concerns in peace talks. Their representation, participation and decision-making in these political undertakings is essential to peace. Through institutionalisation of rights-based approaches, the government must prioritise the reintegration and disarming of child soldiers.
Reuben James Barrete is a community and policy development officer at the International Centre for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance. Luke Lischin is an academic assistant at the National War College. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own