Three bomb explosions rocked the southern Philippines as it prepared to hold a second round of voting for an autonomous Muslim region, though no one was wounded, officials said Wednesday.
The blasts – likely meant to cause chaos and panic – occurred more than a week after suspected militants launched twin bomb attacks that killed 22 people at a Catholic cathedral in the southern town of Jolo.
Two explosions occurred Monday in the towns of Kauswagan and Lala in Lanao del Norte province, but there were no reports of injuries, local police spokesman Superintendent Surki Serenes said. A third homemade bomb exploded in nearby Sultan Naga Dimaporo town, officials said.
“This is simply scare tactics and are the handiwork of those who want to sow fear and panic among the people of Lanao del Norte and derail the conduct of a peaceful and orderly plebiscite,” Serenes said.
Serenes said the improvised explosive device in Kauswagan was placed beside a dump truck parked behind the town’s multi-purpose gym. While the bomb in Lala was left inside a bag near the town market.
The plebiscite on Wednesday will decide whether six towns in North Cotabato province and Lanao del Norte would become part of a Muslim autonomous region. The law establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has been ratified in an earlier vote in other areas of the Muslim south.
The explosions on Monday came eight days after twin bombings at the church in Jolo, which voted against inclusion into the autonomous area. The cathedral attack has been blamed on suicide bombers, possibly foreigners, working in concert with the Abu Sayyaf group, five of whose members have been arrested.
BARMM is the centerpiece of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that President Rodrigo Duterte signed in 2018, four years after Manila agreed to a peace deal with the former separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Bombs blamed on opponents of BOL
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the bomb explosions Wednesday were carried out by personalities “who resist change and want to perpetuate the climate of fear” and hopelessness in the south.
“No amount of bombing or terroristic act will scare, intimidate nor threaten the voters from participating in today's plebiscite,” he said. “We assure the electorate in that part of Mindanao that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has provided safeguards for their safety and will be in full alert to thwart any attempt from any armed group or terrorist to derail the present democratic process.”
He said those who want to foment disunity were clearly behind the attacks.
“We shall not be waylaid by the twin forces of obstruction and destruction,” he said.
Lanao Gov. Imelda Dimaporo said she strongly opposed the inclusion of several towns into the autonomous region. She accused MILF commander Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Commander Bravo, of being behind the explosions as part of the group’s scare tactics.
She noted that authorities in 2008 accused Macapaar’s MILF faction of attacking communities in Lanao del Norte, displacing thousands after the Supreme Court ruled to junk what would have been an initial pact with the MILF.
That agreement would have been the basis for the creation of a new Bangsamoro entity to replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which has been largely considered a failure by the Duterte government.
“It’s meant to sow fear to the people just like what they did in Cotabato City … so that the people will not come out and vote,” Dimaporo told reporters. She was referring to a bomb explosion that killed two people at a mall in Cotabato city on New Year’s Eve.
The governor said some of the MILF men were in Kauswagan on Monday to campaign for the vote. They stayed behind to carry out the bombing, she alleged, without offering any proof.
“Kauswagan is a Christian municipality … they were attacked by the MILF in 2000,” she said.
But Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the MILF, denied the governor’s accusation, saying she had no basis for blaming the explosions to Commander Bravo.
Murad said the personalities behind the bombings could be those who wanted to sabotage the sabotage.
“We cannot accept that accusation without any proof. We have been campaigning very hard not to disturb the plebiscite because we know the people need to vote. If there are disturbances, that will discourage voters to go to voting places,” Murad said.
“I think those who would do that are those against the plebiscite,” he said.
Troops scramble to battle Abu Sayyaf
The bomb attacks came amid tight security across the south, as troops and police scrambled to go after the Abu Sayyaf for the Jolo bombings. This week, the police announced that it had arrested five people for the blast, although officials said Indonesian bombers could possibly be involved.
But that assertion of foreign involvement has received various reactions, largely from Jolo residents who noted inconsistencies with the official story line.
“If the bombers were the Indonesian couple, why is there no news in Indonesia confirming that they are Indonesians?” asked Julkipli Wadi, a professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines.
He said that it might be possible that the police may have mistakenly arrested the wrong suspects.
“Suicide bombing involving an alleged couple is a shock for Tausugs, so too for Indonesians,” he said, referring to the ethnic tribe that populate Jolo. “Such news, if true, would immediately spread in any village in Jakarta or elsewhere in Indonesia. Yet, until now, we hear nothing.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato and Dennis Jay Santos in Davao contributed to this report.