Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato City, Philippines
Shouts of “Allah Akbar” (“God is great”) reverberated across parts of the southern Philippines as partial, unofficial results showed that a majority had voted for a Muslim homeland in the region via a Jan. 21 referendum, officials said Wednesday.
Lawyer Omar Yasser Crisostomo Sema, a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that helped craft the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which would grant expanded autonomy to mainly Muslim areas of the south, broke into tears when the local elections commission in Cotabato City announced results of Monday’s historic plebiscite on the law, in Cotabato City.
“The unsung sacrifices and compromises in and out of the leaders will always be in the foundations of this new beginning for our people,” said Sema. “Welcome, Cotabato, to the Bangsamoro.”
However, Cotabato Mayor Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who had campaigned strongly against her city’s inclusion in the autonomous area, told reporters that her team planned to lodge a complaint alleging massive cheating and intimidation by forces pushing for a “yes” vote in the referendum on ratifying BOL.
She argued that giving a former rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), full control of the city could lead to violence. On New Year’s Eve, a bomb explosion outside a shopping mall in Cotabato killed two people.
“We are filing a protest. We have lots of irregularities to mention. You saw what they did. From the threats the teachers received, to the grenades to scare the voters, to the thousands of MILF supporters who blocked the real voters,” Guiani-Sayadi told reporters.
Von Al Haq, spokesman for the MILF, described the holding of referendum as generally peaceful, saying that no major untoward incidents had happened.
“The massive fraud practiced before was, at least, lessened as both the intellectuals and the ordinary voters were eager for peace to ultimately reign in this part of the region,” Al Haq said.
On Tuesday night, local election officials ended their counting of votes in Cotabato City. Some 36,682 ballots (or 59 percent) were cast for the “yes” vote for the city’s inclusion, while 24,994 ballots were cast against inclusion in the autonomous zone, officials said.
But out of Cotabato’s registered 71,963 registered voters, only 39,000 showed up at the polls, according to officials with the elections commission. They said they were checking the discrepancy but that it was unlikely to affect the vote’s final outcome.
Counting in other areas was still ongoing. The vote in Cotabato was seen as crucial because it is the envisioned capital city of the expanded Bangsamoro autonomous region.
Other areas to vote Feb. 6
Election officials are still canvassing in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, as well as in six towns in Lanao del Norte province and the city of Isabela in Basilan.
Some areas in Lanao del Norte province are scheduled to go to the polls on Feb. 6 to vote on whether to ratify the Bangsamoro law, although it is highly expected they will also vote in favor of implementing BOL.
Ray Sumalipao, an attorney who heads the Commission on Elections in the region, said the body would officially announce the plebiscite results in Manila in coming days. No exact date was given.
In Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman urged the people to accept the outcome of the referendum on BOL, which the Philippine leader signed last July.
“If it will be passed, that means those covered by the region except those against [it], like Cotabato and Sulu, will be happy. But they do not have a choice. That’s the law, everyone has to toe the line,” spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
Sai Mamalo, a resident of Cotabato, said it was time for the people to accept the results of the vote and work toward improving the lot of the mineral-rich, but underdeveloped south.
“Lead us by faith and with true Islamic values. Prove to us that we made the right decision. Do not, even, for one second, let us regret our decisions. Prove to us that you are worthy because you have to,” she told BenarNews.
“Prove to those who said ‘no’ to you that they were wrong because you have to. It is the greatest gift you can give to us, and even more so, to yourselves,” Mamalo said.
The Bangsamoro law aims to give the south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
BOL would also give the people in parts of the southern Philippines that have an Islamic majority control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and would allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Sharia law into their justice system.
The law came out of a peace deal struck by the Philippine government and MILF rebels in 2014 – two years before Duterte took power. It was designed to end bloodshed in the southern region, where nearly a half century of separatist rebellion had left thousands dead and limited growth.
Massive poverty and discontent have also fueled violence in the south, with offshoot militants from MILF forming their own group to carry out banditry and violence.
Islamic State-linked militants have also taken advantage of the security situation, and have recruited disaffected minors to fight, resulting in eruptions of violence, such as the 2017 takeover of Marawi city by pro-IS extremists.
Marawi lies in ruins more than a year after Philippine government forces broke the five-month militant siege that left 1,200 dead, mostly extremists.
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