The Philippine military said Monday it would conduct sustained operations to flush radical groups out of their jungle camps ahead of the January 2019 plebiscite in the south.
Maj. Gen. Bienvenido Datuin, chief of the Armed Forces Civil Relations Service, said plans for the military operations were in the final stages, more than a year after pro-Islamic State (IS) militants were defeated in the southern city of Marawi.
“Definitely the areas controlled by the extremists will be targeted before the Jan. 21 plebiscite,” Datuin told reporters.
Presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza said the military had identified 12 villages in the town of Patikul on the remote Jolo island as areas of concern; as well as several territories in central Mindanao that are known to be strongholds of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and two areas in the Lanao provinces that have been identified as camps occupied by IS-linked militants.
The plebiscite is meant to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that was passed in July by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, four years after Manila and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) inked a peace deal.
The BOL is aimed at giving the people in the impoverished south control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and allowing Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system.
It is also designed to give self-determination to the minority four million Muslims in the south by giving them powers to elect their own parliament. As part of the deal on the BOL, the MILF had also agreed to disband its fighting force.
Authorities hope that the BOL would end a nearly 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people in the country’s second-largest island of Mindanao.
The plebiscite is to take place in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. It will also include six towns in Lanao del Norte and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan.
Dureza said “there are areas in these provinces that government troops find it hard to gain entry because rebels control them.”
Violence in these areas could mar the plebiscite, he said.
“The military even advised me not to go to these areas,” Dureza said. “The government will have to deal with these potential trouble makers if we have to have an orderly plebiscite in the south.”
The BIFF have so far been the largest, most-organized group that is threatening the plebiscite. Composed of more radical and younger fighters, it had broken away from the MILF when the latter opted to negotiate autonomy for Muslims in the south.
BIFF had pledged allegiance to the IS, but did not send fighters when IS-linked militants led by Isnilon Hapilon, backed by foreign fighters, seized Marawi last year. The five-month battle destroyed Marawi and left 1,200 dead, most of them militants.
Duterte had not lifted martial law he had declared in the south, saying that many militants were known to have escaped during the Marawi fighting and joined armed groups in Mindanao’s vast jungle areas.
Richel V. Umel from Iligan City contributed to this report.