Tensions High in Philippine City Over Joining Autonomous Muslim Region

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2020-12-14
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Tensions High in Philippine City Over Joining Autonomous Muslim Region Soldiers guard an area that leads to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, in Cotabato city, southern Philippines, Dec. 14, 2020.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Security forces were on high alert in Cotabato city on Monday after government officials here said they got death threats for opposing its inclusion in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines.

On Tuesday, Cotabato officially becomes part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, nearly a year after a majority of residents voted for the city to be included in BAARM.

Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the city’s mayor, had questioned the vote’s results.

“Today, some officials of the city government of Cotabato and I have received anonymous text messages from multiple unknown numbers. These messages contain threats to the city and our personal lives,” Sayadi said in a statement.

“It is very disheartening that it seems like we have no freedom to express what we truly feel and to serve as the voice of our Cotabatenos in rejecting the BARMM.”

Deputy Mayor Graham Dumama, City Administrator Danda Duanday and two other officials had also received threats, Guiani-Sayadi said.

On Monday, marines and police guarded vital installations in Cotabato, manned roadblocks and checked all vehicles going in and out of the city.

Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, said he had ordered an investigation to ensure Guiani-Sayadi’s safety.

Murad heads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former separatist guerrilla group, as well as the transitional government in five provinces and a handful of districts, which make up the autonomous region.

He said other armed groups, including guerrillas who had split from MILF and voiced allegiance to Islamic State extremists might pose a threat on Tuesday.

“We have extended an invitation to the mayor for tomorrow, it’s up to her to accept it or not,” Murad told BenarNews.

“Cotabato will be turned over to BARMM tomorrow. We would want her to attend to express her support and cooperation.”

After the referendum Guiani-Sayadi filed a case in the Supreme Court and a complaint with the election commission to challenge the vote’s results. The case is pending.

“I have always been vocal about my stand on this matter and despite all the threats that I have received because of this, I have never faltered nor have I succumbed to fear,” she said.

Guiani-Sayadi alleged that the Cotabato referendum was rigged and MILF members had intimidated voters. The former armed separatists have repeatedly denied the allegations.

President Rodrigo Duterte had agreed to keep the status quo in Cotabato City until December, in the hope that the court would have settled the case. Meanwhile, BARMM’s interior ministry said last month that the city would soon be placed under its supervision.

BARMM’s government is situated in Cotabato, and Guiani-Sayadi fears that the city could lose its fiscal independence by joining the autonomous region.

Murad, who is head of BARMM until 2022, has been lobbying for his term to be extended by three years. A proposed law to facilitate this extension is with the Philippine Congress.

Earlier this month, Murad told BenarNews that he would need his term extended to put in place reforms required before local voters elect their own government in 2022.

The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing threats from Islamic State-linked militant groups in the south had slowed the reform process, he said.

Threats from groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and its various factions have thwarted a major reform goal – decommissioning the weapons of former MILF fighters, Murad said.

Earlier this month, police in Cotabato killed a man allegedly linked to a 2018 bombing that killed two people at a shopping mall.

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