Poor kids easy prey for rebel recruiters

Sixteen-year-old Chris Neil Sugui ponders his future as he and younger brother Mark cast their finely meshed net in the warm waters of the South China Sea for milkfish fingerlings.

The few pesos they will earn for their hard day’s work will not buy them out of their bleak predicament—they do not have enough money for school, their parents are sick and they are hounded by recruiters from the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

“My friends from school have joined. They say there is nowhere to go and it is better than fishing all the time,” says Chris, his weather-beaten brown face breaking into a toothy smile.

“I heard they also get an allowance. And if I join, maybe I can help my family,” he says, but quickly adds he was only thinking out loud lest his brother tell his strict father.

The brothers live with two other siblings and their parents in a tiny fishing village in Zambales, a western province on the main Philippine island of Luzon that has become a fertile recruiting ground for the rebels.

Electricity is only available at certain times of the day, and their regular fare is dried fish on a bowl of rice shared by six family members.

During summer, tourists visit to catch the famed sunset, but a recent storm has transformed the coastline into a repository of debris for the South China Sea that gently laps at the black sand.

The brothers said they had repeatedly rejected offers to join the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which since 1969 has been waging Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgency.

Their friends who have taken up arms are either high-school dropouts like them or graduates whose parents come from poor fishing or farming communities in Zambales.

A rugged mountain range that cuts through 60% of Zambales’s 361 000ha land area has become an ideal base and training ground for NPA fronts that operate near isolated villages.

While the rebels are known to extort illegal “revolutionary taxes” from businesses and steal cattle, many impressionable youths are drawn to the struggle, not so much by ideology, but for survival and camaraderie.

“They [the rebels] take care of their relatives.
Once, my classmate’s father was sick, they took him to the hospital and gave him money,” says Chris, who once dreamed of hitting it big in corporate Manila.

“I heard a lot of other stories of NPA soldiers helping,” he says, but admits that he does not know the ideology that rebels are supposedly fighting for.

“I know they help and they are like a military,” he says.

Mark (14) complains his brother’s head is “full of ideas”, instead of focusing on their work.

“What will we get from the rebels? Maybe a little help, that’s all. And until when? It’s better to die poor, I think,” he says.

Officials say there are no actual figures on how many child soldiers are recruited into the ranks of the NPA every year, and the rebels have repeatedly denied such accusations by the military.

But the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, in a 2004 report on the Philippines, said that 122 boys and 50 girls below 18 were captured working for the NPA as “combatants, courier, guides, medics or spies”.

“The Philippines has been identified as a priority country” in the fight to end the use of children in conflict, says Ryan Silverio, a Bangkok-based regional spokesperson for the group.

He says field research by the group indicates that desperation in many areas wracked by poverty remains the key factor why children are lured into joining rebellions.

“They join because of a sense of poverty and because they lack options,” Silverio says. “Some also join to address oppression. Many children we have interviewed are victims themselves or witnesses of military oppression.”

The NPA, however, denies recruiting children and that those below 18 who want to join are assigned “non-combat” tasks including helping in cultural programmes and teaching.

The Sugui brothers say they will not join for now.

“Maybe you will interview us again soon as fighters,” Chris says. “Now there is fish to catch.”—AFP

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