Coming of age in conflict: Child soldiers in the Philippines

At least 10 to 15 percent of those fighting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are children under the age of 18
Coming of age in conflict: Child soldiers in the Philippines

The four-month long fighting in the southern Philippine city of Marawi has brought to the fore the use of child soldiers by terrorist groups claiming to have links with the so-called Islamic State. (Photo by Vincent Go)

There was no shortage of horrifying imagery coming from the recently ended siege in Marawi in the southern Philippines. But of the images captured during the crisis, perhaps none are as chilling as the sight of armed children training in terrorist camps and enemy propaganda featuring children with guns.

While the presence of child soldiers does not overshadow the lives lost, people displaced, and the property destroyed in the city, the children recruited by the terrorists are a sign of ill tidings for peace and stability in the southern region of Mindanao.

Child soldiering is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. Comparing academic research on child soldiers with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and more recent reports of child soldiers in the terrorist Maute group, a similar picture emerges.

The child soldiers have affinities for the ideology and operations of the groups they were recruited into, regardless of their socio-economic background. Some fighters were offered cash incentives or access to marriageable women, while others followed older relatives or joined at their behest.

Coercion, though present, did not define the recruitment experience of Filipino child soldiers, rather, most were enticed by the promise of a glamorous life beyond their means and social station.

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The tragedy of child soldiers in the Philippines extends beyond the suffering and degradation of the children themselves to the wider communities from which they came and the conflicts in which they fight.

While the consequences of child soldiering across comparative cases need further research, available analysis in the field indicate that child soldiers tend to prolong the conflicts where they are deployed.

Children are not as capable fighters as adult recruits, but they are vastly more impressionable, coercible, and may be less likely to desert or surrender. Children in this particular case are vulnerable; they serve in categories as combatants while others as auxiliary support.

However, it is imperative to highlight that there are varying factors facilitating child recruitment. These factors include high poverty, government neglect, and the lack of basic social services across communities.

In special cases, abuses and injustices committed by the Philippine military and other government-supported armed groups fuel the children's desires to avenge injustices or defend their communities by joining opposing armed groups.

These sentiments are affirmed and expressed through the presence of people in communities who believe in the particular ideologies of armed groups and other terrorist organizations, which serve as prolific fields for child recruitment.

Allegations have surfaced that children are not only trained to hold arms and fight against state authorities but also undergo camp-based education with content and teaching methodologies in contrast with formal or traditional education. Camp curricula include social awareness exercises, as well as ideological and political programming designed to solidify child recruits' loyalty to the group.

In countries with a youth bulge like the Philippines, children are a source of easily obtainable and thus expendable manpower. They are considered by armed groups as solid long-term investments, because when children mature over the course of a lengthy conflict, they become better, physically and mentally equipped to engage in war.

In consequence, child soldiers are frequently a stumbling block for peace processes, which seldom include provisions for demobilizing and rehabilitating child fighters.

It remains to be seen whether youth caught in the midst of nascent uprisings in the Philippines will answer the call to arms en masse. Although there is a lack of historical records on why children are recruited by the armed groups, a rapid assessment on child soldiers in Mindanao conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2012 showed children age 14 to 17 were admitted as members of different armed groups — the New People's Army (NPA), the MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf group.

Alarmingly, the ILO reported that of the 6,000 to 10,000 armed members of the MILF, at least 10 to 15 percent are children under the age of 18. If domestic insecurity increases over the months and years to come, it is reasonable to expect that the number of children recorded in these groups will increase in proportion to the expansion of conflict.

Despite the MILF's historical and continuing use of child soldiers, Mohagher Iqbal is nevertheless unnerved by the rapid disillusionment of Moro youth with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

According to Iqbal, the original failure of the Bangsamoro Basic Law to pass Congress under the previous administration, followed by Duterte's tepid and faltering endorsement of the newest iteration of the law, is causing young people to lose faith in the peace process. Although the MILF is attempting to shore up its support among the youth, Iqbal laments that there is little they can do to stymie the rapidly growing appeal of insurgents like the Maute group.

Even the communist New People's Army faces its own challenges regarding the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. Like their Moro separatist and jihadist counterparts, the NPA is flushed with young recruits despite consistent claims that they follow the "18" recruitment policy; a stark contrast to the advanced age of their political leadership.

For now, the age disparity between the leadership and the rank-and-file has not produced obvious fissures in the underground movement like those that plagued the movement during in the 1980s. However, when the rebel leadership inevitably passes on, the succession of the new generation of rebels to the helm of the movement is not guaranteed to be without growing pains.

Considering the vulnerability of Filipino youth to the overtures of armed groups amidst a climate of political repression and assaults on human rights, it is time for the government to consider granting children and youth the political space to address their issues and concerns in the peace talks between the Philippine government and armed groups.

The lack of representation, participation, and decision-making of children and the youth in these political undertakings need to be considered as essential to the peace process, and not as an auxiliary concern.

Ultimately, the perpetual involvement of children as combatants in the Philippines needs greater public discourse to facilitate concrete protections through institutionalization of rights-based approaches that extend beyond a social welfare framework.

Reuben James Barrete is a community and policy development officer at the International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance. Luke Lischin is an academic assistant at the National War College.

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