Since the late 1960s, successive governments have fought left-wing and Islamist rebellions in certain regions of the country, conflicts which have killed more than 160,000 people and displaced over 2 million. Mr Aquino’s government has restarted peace talks with left-wing groups and initiated community programmes to counter the Muslim insurgency on the island of Mindanao.
United Nation (UN) representatives have this week been visiting the Philippines to view some of these initiatives. As part of their visit, UN officials spoke out against the use of child soldiers by rebel groups. The UN’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said rebel organizations such as the New People’s Army and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had indicated they were prepared to end the recruitment of minors in their ranks (though one Islamic group using child soldiers is not in talks). IRIN reported Ms Coomaraswamy as saying she was “hopeful that we will be able to sign an action plan as soon as possible”.
The UN’s representative said that around 600 children within MILF (below the age of 18 years) had already been registered by the UN, though under-eighteens could make up as much as 15 per cent of their ranks. She acknowledged that cultural definitions meant boys older than 13 years were considered as adults under local Islamic custom, but also highlighted that children as young as 8 were also recruited to help achieve the group’s goal of an independent ‘Muslim homeland’. Not all youngsters would however be fighting, since some would be providing services such as cleaning and fetching water.
The UN is keen for all child soldiers to be released by fighting groups and expects to register all children within the MILF by the end of 2011. UN representatives are also hopeful of obtaining commitments from Maoist rebels. Though the problem of child soldiers is not widespread geographically, the numbers in certain areas of combat remain worrying.
In a separate initiative to improve the welfare of Filipinos, the President also this week promised a crackdown on human traffickers. Since his inauguration last June, 26 traffickers have been convicted, which is already a higher number than the total convictions for the last 6 years (following the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003). As one agency worker in this area concluded when speaking to IRIN, “the new administration is serious”. So far, Mr Aquino therefore appears to be a man not only of words, but actions.