President Rodrigo Duterte traveled to the southern Philippines on Friday to push for ratification of a law designed to give former Muslim rebels in the region control over an autonomous homeland ahead of a plebiscite on the issue scheduled for Monday.
Duterte arrived amid tight security in Cotabato, just days after a bomb attack at a shopping mall left two people dead. Authorities said the attack was aimed at causing widespread fear leading up to the popular vote on ratifying the law.
“After so many years of negotiation and interruptions,” Duterte said. “This is why I proudly join my Moro brothers and sister as we convene this peaceful assembly in support for the ratification of Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).”
“Your approval of this law will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than a century of armed struggle in the region,” he said. “It will also serve as testament to your determination to bring genuine peace and development in Muslim Mindanao through an autonomous government that truly represents and understand the needs of the people.”
The BOL would give people in the south control over many local government functions including taxation and education and would allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system.
Authorities hope the BOL will end four decades of conflict that has left an estimated 120,000 dead in Mindanao, the country’s mineral-rich, yet poverty stricken, southern third.
As part of a deal struck with the government, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) agreed to disband its fighting force and surrender at least 30,000 firearms.
There are fears that militant groups including Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that splintered from MILF and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State could disrupt the vote.
On Friday, thousands of MILF members and their supporters gathered at the Shariff Kabunsuan Complex in the city of Cotabato for a grand rally with Duterte.
Last year, some local officials questioned and filed a petition in the high court to issue a temporary restraining order against the plebiscite.
But Duterte said the law had undergone a comprehensive analysis and review to ensure that once implemented it will lead to better governance, inclusive political empowerment and enhance systems of transparency and accountability.
“To my dear brothers and sisters, as you exercise your sacred right to vote on this plebiscite, I remind you that the power to change the course of your future is solely in your hands. Exercise this right with utmost care because the future of succeeding generations depends on it,” Duterte said.
MILF chief Ebrahim Murad sought to assure local officials about the vote.
“Our success lies in how we are going to mobilize our people and other people of the area in supporting us in order to have success. We know that the challenges ahead for us are much greater that what we have surpassed in the past. It’s not easy job,” Murad said.
Mayor opposes BOL
Meanwhile, Cotabato mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi on Friday called on residents to reject the BOL, saying the recent deadly bomb attack at the South Seas Mall could herald a new wave of violence in the region.
“When you say a law, that’s an open thing, but if you say credibility, that’s another thing,” Guiani-Sayadi said. “How credible are those proponents in bringing peace, progress and development if they cannot even control their people harassing the residents of Cotabato? How can you say you can bring peace?”
She said that even before the bomb attack, tension and fear ran high in Cotabato and alleged some MILF ground commanders were seen threatening people to vote “yes” or suffer attacks
“I’d like to tell you that my decision to support a no vote for the inclusion of the city is not only mine. I consulted all the stakeholders and sectors. I don’t want to decide alone. I want to feel what the people want … those they cannot say because they are afraid,” Guiani-Sayadi said.
More than 20,000 security forces are to be deployed throughout the region on Monday to ensure a safe vote, officials said.
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, contributed to this report.