SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao (MindaNews/ 19 Feb) — It was a different “graduation” last Saturday for children under 18 who were “formally or informally associated” with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) in conflict-affected areas in Maguindanao and some parts of North Cotabato.
Instead of a diploma, each of the 69 boys and girls went up the stage at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute compound to receive a “Certificate of Disengagement” signed by the base commanders in their areas and Al Mansour, Chief of Staff of the BIAF, shook hands with top political and military officials of the MILF and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza.
A total of 1,858 children under 18 will go through a similar “disengagement” ceremony in the MILF’s 31 base commands until end of March to cap the MILF’s commitment to the United Nations-MILF Action Plan signed in August 2009 to “end the recruitment and use of children within their ranks,” UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander said.
There is no figure available as yet on how many of the 1,858 children are female but Sylwander said around 60% are male.
“Children pay the heaviest price” in armed conflicts as they could be engaged in direct combat or as aides or cooks, Sylwander stressed. Disengaging them from the armed forces is “very, very important achievement for MILF, for Mindanao, for the Philippines” because the children are “tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s decision-makers. They hold the peace in their hands.”
She commended the MILF for being “the only armed group including government armed groups that is actively trying and perhaps successfully now identified and separated children within their armed forces.”
The process of disengagement took several years as it involved addressing”perceptions and beliefs about children, about who is a child, who isn’t a child what the child should be doing and not doing,” Sylwander explained.
Finding “correct approach”
“This takes time. it’s not something like you sign a paper and then everyone agrees on it and and then we we shake hands and it’s gone. This has taken a long time.” She said the process entailed convincing religious, military and political leaders, base commanders and their subordinates “and also of course the parents who are sometimes also soldiers … and the community needs to understand deeply not superficially that if you are under 18 you are not supposed to engage in any armed activity.”
Edward Guerra, chair of the UN-MILF Action Plan panel, admitted the program “didn’t take off immediately” because “in our culture,” once the children “can marry and produce children, they are considered adult.”
He said they had to find the “correct approach” in their advocacy and information drives in the camps.
Saturday’s “graduation” marked the end of the children’s “association” with the BIAF, their participation in the armed conflict although how the children can effectively be “disengaged” or “separated” or “released” when they live with parents who may be soldiers and reside in communities that are also base commands is a challenge that has to be addressed by the MILF, the government and development partners like the UNICEF.
For Sylwander, the “release” is “only the beginning of the next phase of their youth. The next step is to ensure that these children receive support” from everyone.
“Not necessarily child combatants”
Al-Mansour said the disengagement seeks to protect the children from harm “so children will not be abused by the state of war.”
He described himself as having been “one of the most abused child,” having been involved in the armed struggle before he was eight years old — he said he was trained and later deployed to Ampatuan in Maguindanao “where the Ilaga was very, very active.”
Al-Mansour noted that some four years before the UN-MILF Action Plan was signed, the Code of Conduct of the BIAF had already specified “non-recruitment of children under 18.”
Ghazali Jaafar, MILF 1st Vice Chair, maintained that the alleged child soldiers they have been accused of recruiting are “not child soldiers.”
He explained that “many of our camps are not purely military camps. They are communities” and the MILF which engages in guerrilla warfare cannot engage in such without community support.
“The children are associated with us but not necessarily as child combatants,” he said.
Dureza told the children and well-wishers who gathered under three huge multi-colored umbrella tents that Saturday’s ceremony showed a “big transition.. from a climate of conflict into a climate of peace.”
He noted that the disengagement of the children from the armed force is also a disengagement “from a feeling of being in conflict” to “already working towards peace together.”
“Even if the parents will tell them ‘don’t get involved in the conflict, get out of being child warriors but if (the children) see their parents, their, family members, their friends still in the middle of a serious conflict, I am sure we cannot also convince them” to disengage, he said.
The last time a major armed conflict sent hundreds of thousands of Moro people to evacuation centers was in 2008 and 2009, in the aftermath of the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.
But Dureza is optimistic that “we have come of age.”
“Dumating na tayo sa tamang panahon” (Now is the right time), he said. “May forever daw na love. Dapat may forever din na peace.”
He vowed to mobilize government support for the “disengaged” children, and link up with the Department of Education for those who are not in school now but want to return to school, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the Technical Education Skills and Development Authority (TESDA) for skills training. Dureza reminded the crowd that the TESDA Director General, Secretary Guiling Mamondiong, is a Moro.
Four of the children MindaNews interviewed said they are in school (Grades 6, 7, 8 and 11) and would like to continue uninterrupted by war.
Dureza himself said the only question he asked the children when they went up the stage was if they were in school and was glad most of them answered they are.
He acknowledged the government’s “malaking obligasayon” (big obligation) in helping make the disengagement work.
“Government should embrace you as you will be the next leaders of the Filipino people,” he said.
Jaafar reminded everyone that the Bangsamoro agenda “is a political problem that requires a political settlement.”
“If the Bangsamoro agenda is not resolved, battles may recur in the areas of the Bangsamoro,” Jaafar said, adding, “technically, we are still at war.”
“The state of no shooting is very temporary,” Jaafar stressed but acknowledged that the Bangsamoro “is expecting so much” under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, the first Mindanawon President and the first with a Moro bloodline.
The government and MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsmaoro (CAB) on March 27, 2014 but Congress under the Aquino administration adjourned without passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that would have allowed for the establishment of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro, to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
An expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) that will draft the new BBL has just been named.
Jaafar, who will be the new chair of the BTC, asked: “When is the time that safety of children is guaranteed?” He answered his own question: “for as long as the political solution ay di napapatupad, mananatiling nasa peligro ang mga bata sa conflict-affected areas” [is not implemented, the children in conflict-affected areas will continue to live in danger]. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)