The Philippine defense chief on Thursday slammed communist guerrillas for allegedly carrying on with recruiting child soldiers from school campuses, making the comments a day after senators held a hearing into minors being indoctrinated by leftist groups.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) had recruited minors for decades, but the ongoing practice now shows “growing desperation” among the guerrillas and their “tremendously” diminished influence, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Among those targeted for recruitment are mostly poverty-stricken minors, who are drawn into the outlawed CPP through “deceptive recruitment” by front organizations and later find themselves on the frontlines of guerrilla activities, Lorenzana said in a statement.
“Using legal front organizations that purportedly advance the people’s democratic rights, they have freely operated in democratic spaces, such as campuses and vulnerable communities, to lure our citizens into joining sectoral organizations and eventually, the armed movement,” Lorenzana said in a statement, referring to the CPP, NPA, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, a coalition of leftist groups.
The leadership of these groups “does not care for the lives of children, since they will use anyone to forward their selfish agenda,” the Philippine defense chief said.
Captured rebels who have joined the government’s rehabilitation program have attested that they have been fighting since their teens, as young as 14 or 15, Lorenzana said, without providing more details.
The ex-guerrillas told investigators that they were initially kept as companions by the NPA to do menial jobs before they received firearms training and were ordered to fight, Lorenzana said.
“That is why the defense and military establishments are very vocal against the deceptive recruitment of young Filipinos in our schools and other institutions, and strongly condemn the abhorrent practice of using children in armed conflict,” he added.
Lorenzana issued the statement after a series of incidents since April where minors from the NPA ranks were involved in armed clashes with government forces.
He also made the comments after a Senate panel heard testimony on Wednesday from parents whose children had allegedly been recruited by leftist groups, including the communists, from high school and university campuses.
Lorenzana did not give an estimate on the number of children fighting for the communist guerrillas. Military estimates placed the NPA strength at more than 5,000 men scattered in more than 60 guerrilla fronts throughout the Philippines.
In March, government security officials claimed that the Maoist-inspired rebels had been recruiting volunteers for a series of protest rallies purportedly to raise awareness on indigenous rights in the southern Mindanao region. A local tribal chieftain had told the military about the plan, and a raid was carried out at a nearby village that led to the discovery of some firearms.
NPA fighters were later cornered and surrendered, among them a 15-year-old girl who was the group’s acting medic. She later told officers that she had been with the NPA’s care since she was a toddler. Two other teens were also captured.
Communist rebel spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
Shortly after assuming office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described leftist, opened peace talks with the CPP and released dozens of detained insurgent leaders as a goodwill measure.
The relationship soured months later when the rebels were accused of prolonging their attacks in remote areas of the country, despite the peace talks.
Duterte subsequently ended the negotiations formally after communist rebels were linked in an alleged plot with the political opposition to unseat him
The phenomenon of “child soldiers” has long been a problem in the Philippines, where military officials say extreme poverty in rural areas often drives many youngsters to join armed groups in the hopes of bettering their lives.
Apart from the NPA, which has been waging Asia’s longest-running insurgency since the 1960s, groups such as the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group and other Islamic State-allied organizations often entice the young with promises of a better life.