In this October 25, 2017 file photo, NPA guerrillas surrender to the Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion, a unit of the 6th Infantry Division. The STAR/John Unson, file

Army officer disputes claim military 'abuse' helps NPA recruit
( - February 8, 2018 - 8:30am

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — An Army commander on Wednesday disputed a claim by a human rights watchdog that alleged military abuses make it easier for the New People's Army to recruit Lumads to their ranks.

Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, commander of the 33rd ‘Makabayan’ Infantry Battalion, said that communist rebels take advantage of the inaccessibility of government services in many tribal communities to recruit members into the NPA.

Cabunoc was reacting to a Human Rights Watch statement cautioning against a government plan to bring investors into ancestral domain.

"The Lumad – the collective name of Philippine indigenous peoples – often suffer from the military’s abusive presence, which makes them more susceptible to recruitment by the NPA. The military, in turn, accuses the rebels of exploiting the Lumad and taps them to fight the NPA," HRW researcher Carlos Conde said earlier this week.

"Critics of Duterte’s plan to open up the lands to developers have warned it could lead to more local violence. Many companies have a track record of degrading the environment and driving out indigenous peoples, with a predictable backlash from the affected communities and the NPA," Conde also said.

READ: Duterte’s plan on use of Lumad's ancestral lands a ‘total sell-out’ — group

Cabunoc said communists and activist groups recruited and organized disgruntled Lumads against the Dawang coffee plantation in ancestral domain that straddles the provinces of South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.

According to a MindaNews report in December, the T’boli–Manubo Sdaf Claimants Organization has been opposing the expansion of the coffee plantation into their ancestral lands for 25 years.

Datu Victor Danyan, TAMASCO chairman, was killed in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato in December in what the military said was a clash with the NPA. Leaders of church, environmental and activists groups have disputed the claim that Danyan was a rebel.

Cabunoc said the NPA took advantage of an absence of military operations in the area to recruit members from indigenous peoples' communities.

"They were recruited by the NPA because I did not conduct operations in those particular barangays. They were militarized by the NPA," he said. He said the 33rd IB had focused on peaceful negotiations to get NPAs to surrender.

At least 100 NPA rebels have surrendered to the battalion in the past 14 months.

'NPA uses child warriors'

He said rebels attacked the Special Cafgu Active Auxiliary (SCAA), a militia unit under the control of the 33rd IB, guarding the coffee plantation against rebel harassment.

"But what the NPA rebels did was to use child warriors bearing spears to attack and cut down the coffee trees and subsequently surrounded the SCAA in the detachment," Cabunoc said.

He said he advised SCAA personnel not to shoot "because I don’t want the uniforms used by the NPA as tool for their propaganda as symbol of oppression." As a result, he said, the detachment was overrun and then used by the NPA.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines, which represents the communist rebels in peace talks, said in 2012 that the NPA does not recruit nor deploy child soldiers.

"In 1988, the Political Bureau of the CPP’s Central Committee stipulated that the NPA may recruit only persons who are 18 years and older as armed fighters for its combat units. On October 15, 1999 the Executive Committee of the CPP issued the 'Memorandum on the Minimum Age Requirement for NPA Fighters' reaffirming the minimum age of 18 for NPA fighters. In 2002, at the 11th Plenum of the CPP Central Committee, the policy of the minimum age was reiterated," it said in a declaration quoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A UN report in August 2017 noted that the recruitment of minors into armed groups remains a persistent problem in the Philippines.

Cabunoc said he took videos during a visit to local government officials last December 17 as proof of NPA abuse of the IP community. 

"Now, how can this watch group say that we are [the ones] abusing?" Cabunoc said. — Roel Pareño

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