MANILA— The Moro people and indigenous children remain the most affected by conflict as armed rebels continue fighting government forces in Mindanao, a United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) official said Thursday.
“They are highly vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and on the other hand are accused by security forces because they are seen as rebels,” said Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF representative to the Philippines, during the Children and Armed Conflict Forum in Makati City.
“This situation prevents children and their families from experiencing their basic rights to security and to freedom of movement,” she added.
Sylwander reported that children recruited by armed groups in the Philippines are used in both support and combat.
“Usually they are 15 years or older. Due to lack of opportunities and social services, some children in conflict areas voluntarily join armed groups,” she said.
Citing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Sylwander said three main groups are guilty of recruiting and using children – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army (NPA).
“(Reasons why the children often join) are religious motivations, to perform jihad for example (in the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf),” Sylwander said.
“In the case of NPA, children mentioned poverty, lack of opportunities, and injustices such as land grabbing,” she added.
Sylwander said children are “often influenced or convinced by other people to join or not to join” these groups.
The UN verified that 30 Filipino children were recruited and used by rebels and local extremists either as combatants or part of the medical squads in 2017.
Of the figure, 16 were used as human shields by BIFF in a single incident, while six were recruited and used by the NPA.
Last May, the UN called upon armed groups in the Philippines that are recruiting and using children to take immediate steps to end and prevent the practice.
‘Inside the schools’
A former NPA member alleged that communist rebels multiply because of the Salugpongan schools set up in geographically isolated areas in Mindanao to teach young indigenous people (IP).
“Doon, matutunan mo paano mag-rally. Tinuturuan kaming magbasa, magsulat at paano mag-dismantle ng armas, paano mag-dialogue (There, you will learn how to hold demonstrations. We are taught how to read and write but also ways to dismantle arms and how to hold dialogues),” the 20-year-old Datu Asenad Bago said in a recent interview.
Bago, also a former student of Salugpongan Learning Center in Talaingod, claimed these learning centers indoctrinate and recruit minors into joining the communist movement.
Among others, he claimed that sexual abuses were frequent and were committed by the learning center’s staff themselves.
“Ako rin na-rape ako ng maestro na bayot, kaming dalawa ng kaklase ko (I was also raped by my teacher who was gay. Me and my other classmate),” he said.
“‘Yong kasama ko na school mate, nabigyan ng sakit sa katawan kaya binayaran ng isang salmong bigas para makakain (My schoolmate sustained bruises from the sexual advances that’s why that teacher gave him a kilo of rice to compensate),” he said.
Last week, tribal leaders representing Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Council of Elders (MIPCEL) backed claims that these learning centers served as recruitment hubs for rebels.
In a MIPCEL resolution, the group also condemned the violations of IP’s rights on a list called “17 atrocities” committed by the NPA.
Currently, the Philippine National Police is looking into these alleged violations by collating all affidavits of the tribal leaders and victims. (PNA) By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora