Autonomous Muslim Govt Takes Control of Philippine City

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2020-12-15
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Autonomous Muslim Govt Takes Control of Philippine City Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Año (left) signs documents during the national government’s turnover of Cotabato City to an expanded Muslim Autonomous region in the southern Philippines, Dec. 15, 2020.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The Philippine government formally transferred control of the southern city of Cotabato to an autonomous Muslim region on Tuesday, amid tight security against potential attacks by Islamic State-linked militants.

During a ceremony here supporters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a former rebel group, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) as Interior Secretary Eduardo Año handed over documents that officially named the southern city as part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“We will continue to improve the standard of governance to cater to the needs of the people,” Año said during his speech, as he sought to assure BARMM head and MILF chief Murad Ebrahim of ongoing support from Manila.

Año urged the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group from MILF, to stop attacks and instead help to work for development in the troubled region.

BIFF splintered from Moro Islamic Liberation Front when the latter signed a peace deal with the government. MILF today governs the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

Some factions of BIFF have pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) but did not join a raid in the southern city of Marawi in 2017. A five-month siege there by pro-IS fighters and a battle that ensued with government forces killed an estimated 1,200 enemy combatants, soldiers and civilians, including Isnilon Hapilon, the IS leader in the Philippines.

Responding to Año’s message, Naguib Sinarimbo, the spokesman for BARMM and one of its leaders, said its government would work towards improving the region, one of the country’s poorest after decades of armed separatist insurgency.

“I commit to implement the law and provide all the necessary technical assistance to ensure that these local government units can optimize their performance for better services,” Sinarimbo said.

In his message, Murad said his side was pleased to accept the responsibility of supervising Cotabato City and the 63 villages that fall under its jurisdiction.

Murad, as head of the MILF, also leads BARMM’s transitional government that administers five provinces and a handful of districts, which make up the autonomous region.

“We will make sure that BARMM’s development will echo to the city and 63 villages with no constituents left behind regardless of faith or affiliation,” Murad said.

Murad also assured the safety of city residents, even though he had acknowledged earlier that militants still posed a threat to the city.

Since Monday, police had fanned out across the city to thwart any attempts by militants to sow terror during the official turnover.

The seat of BARMM’s government is located in Cotabato, but city leaders fear it could lose fiscal independence through joining the autonomous region.

Mayor Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi has refused to cede control of the city to the former rebels, saying she would wait for a ruling by the Supreme Court, although a majority of city residents had voted in favor of inclusion in the autonomous region.

On Monday, she claimed that she and other city officials had received threats from unknown people for her prolonged defiance of inclusion into BARMM.

“Much as we have opposed the inclusion and the turnover, we took the democratic process and that is to bring the case to the Supreme Court and until now, we are still waiting for a resolution,” she said.

“So now, we leave the fate of our city to the hands of the Supreme Court. Whatever the result may be, rest assured, the Cotabato City LGU (local government unit) will continue to be a government by the people and for the people,” the mayor added.

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