About a month ago, the Philippines petitioned to be removed from the UN’s watchlist of countries with child soldiers. Philippine Ambassador to the UN Hilario Davide argued that it “non-state actors” like the Abu Sayyaf that deploy child soldiers. In contrast, Davide insisted that the Philippine government has an “extreme sensitivity” to the needs of children caught in armed conflict.
Then a few weeks later, Armed Forces of the Philippines Gen. Alexander Yano made this statement:
“If they are terrorists, then definitely we cannot [set them apart from their adult counterparts] when they are in combat. Anybody carrying arms will have to be dealt with accordingly.”
Yano was reacting to reports that some of the kidnappers of a recently released Fililpino news team were teenagers. He further emphasized that there is no need for the Philippine military to review its engagement policies as applied to child soldiers, since “a firearm carried by a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old would kill soldiers the same way.”
Does anyone think Yano’s statements embody the government’s supposed “extreme sensitivity” to the needs of child soldiers?
Yeah, neither did I.
The child soldier is a frightening image, and it is understandable that soldiers would defend themselves against a child holding a firearm. But Yano’s refusal to review the rules of engagements regarding child soldiers is even more frightening. Once again, agents of the Philippine government prefer band-aid solutions to problems which have complicated roots.
Data from the Child Soldiers Global Report 2008 support Davide’s claim that child soldiers are recruited by “non-state actors,” like the Abu Sayyaf and rebel groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army. However, paramilitary vigilante groups like the Citizen’s Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU), which assist the military and law enforcement in anti-insurgency campaigns, do recruit citizens under age eighteen. The Child Soldiers Global Report further states that captured children from rebel groups were often conscripted into CAFGU and other vigilante groups.
Whether serving in rebel or paramilitary vigilante groups, the child soldiers share one important commonality. The Philippine Human Rights Center found that children who become soldiers often come from larger, impoverished families, located in rural areas with little economic development and little available social services.
These are factors that the government’s “extreme sensitivity” have somehow missed.
The Philippine government has also yet to address the ongoing violation of rights of captured and accused child soldiers. The killing of nine-year-old Grecil Buya Galacio illustrates one of the most egregious use of the “child soldier” label. The little girl was shot by government soldiers in an encounter with New People’s Army rebels. The military later maintained that Grecil was an NPA child combatant who was carrying an M-16 armalite rifle.
In her book Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, feminist writer Cynthia Enloe wrote of the growing militarization of society. One of the ways militarizers propagate militarization is by nurturing fear. These militarizers perpetuate the idea of society as a dangerous place, with rebels and terrorists. Through this fearmongering, militarizers can detain eleven young farmers without charge for more than three years running. Militarizers can torture three teenage boys into admitting they are NPA soldiers, then charge the teens with rebellion.
Militarizers can conjure a ridiculous image of Grecil as a thin, nine-year-old girl wielding an armalite rifle that was longer than her body.
The government’s failure to address the factors that facilitate child soldiers is bad enough. But the lack of sufficient public outrage over military policies on the treatment and engagement of child soldiers is another disturbing sign of the continued militarization of our society.