Updated at 5:58 p.m. ET on 2019-01-23
Hundreds of thousands of voters trooped to polling centers in the southern Philippines on Monday amid some reports of delays and harassment, in a historic referendum on ratifying a law to give autonomy to Muslims in the violence-plagued Mindanao region.
Some 20,000 soldiers and policemen stood watch as the plebiscite took place in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela.
Residents of predominantly Islamic areas of the Philippine south were voting on whether they agreed with implementing the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which came out of a peace deal struck in 2014 between the government in Manila and the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group that aimed to end many years of conflict in the region.
“The Bangsamoro Organic Law will be ratified and the Bangsamoro government will be established immediately after the ratification. We are very hopeful that this BOL will be an instrument for peace, instrument for progress and development,” MILF chief Ebrahim Murad said Monday at a voting center where he cast his ballot in favor of the law.
Turnout was heavy but the results of the vote won’t be known until later this week, Philippine election officials said. The polls opened at 7 a.m. Monday (local time) and closed at 3 p.m.
As polling got under way in Cotabato, police found an unexploded grenade outside a polling precinct, a day after men on a motorcycle lobbed a pair of grenades at the home of a local judge.
No one was reported injured but the judge, Angelito Rasalan, is the brother of the executive assistant of the city’s mayor, Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi.
The mayor had campaigned actively against Cotabato’s inclusion in the BOL. She argued that giving the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) full control of the city could lead to an eruption of violence. On New Year’s Eve, a bomb explosion outside a shopping mall in Cotabato killed two people.
In the nearby town of Sultan Kudarat, the headquarters of the 12,000-strong MILF, Murad, the former rebel leader and chairman of the group, cast his vote at the Simuay Junction Elementary School amid tight security.
It marked the first time the grizzled former guerrilla was casting his vote in an electoral contest supervised by the Philippine government. And, for the first time, he was seeking change through the ballot rather than the barrel of a gun.
“This is my first time to vote. We never thought that this will happen. But after the progress of the peace process, then we see that there is light in the tunnel,” said Murad, who had completed his primary education at the school in 1953.
The Bangsamoro law aims to give the impoverished south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
The law would also give the people in parts of the southern Philippines that have an Islamic majority control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and would allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Sharia law into their justice system.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed off on the BOL act in July 2018. Last week, he rallied the south to approve the law to finally end bloodshed in the region, where nearly a half century of separatist rebellion had left thousands dead and stunted the growth of the mineral-rich region.
“We are confident that the ‘yes’ will win. There will be an overwhelming approval if there is no manipulation and intimidation,” Murad said.
‘There were threats’
Yet reports of intimidation surfaced as Monday’s vote unfolded.
At least 66 teachers mandated as election officers did not show up at polling centers in Cotabato out of fear for their safety, causing delays in some voting precincts, said Rey Sumalipao, regional chief of the Commission on Elections.
“There were threats according to them, but somehow our police and military are ready to secure them,” Sumalipao said. He said uniformed police officers took over the roles as election officers and the vote got underway eventually.
Guiani-Sayadi, the Cotabato mayor, said several unregistered voters tried to cast ballots in her area, and were chased away by local residents. She accused the MILF of bringing so-called “flying voters” into her city to sow confusion.
“You can see the influx of MILF without arms but they are intimidating in the eyes of the people,” Sayadi said. “They flock here, not just hundreds but thousands of them, and they are not registered voters … How would you interpret that? Would you not be intimidated?”
The military chief in the region said the armed forces had deployed enough troops to secure the holding of the regional plebiscite.
MILF commander appeals for ‘yes’ vote
Over the weekend, Macapaar, one of the MILF’s senior ground commanders who is also known as Commander Bravo, asked Christian-dominated communities – which he had targeted in past attacks by his rebel group – to vote in the affirmative.
“I call on my brother Christians to unite with us to have lasting peace,” Macapaar read from a prepared video statement, in which he was flanked by armed MILF members.
Macapaar leads all MILF forces in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur provinces, where about 40 percent of the front’s rank-and-file lives.
In 2008, Macapaar led hundreds of MILF fighters in sacking the towns of Kauswagan and Kolambugan in Lanao del Norte, after the courts rejected a document that would have been the basis of a peace deal with the group.
Macapaar said a “yes” vote would ensure a bright and peaceful future for Christians and Muslims in Mindanao.
“Do not fear to vote ‘yes.’ You are on the right side with the MILF and President Duterte,” he said.
Macapaar said on Saturday that he would go after any groups, which might try to prevent Muslims and Christians from voting on Monday.
“I am warning groups who want to thwart the vote. Those who want to join us are under my protection,” he said. “I assure you I will protect those who worked tirelessly for ‘yes,’ whether they are Muslims and Christians.”
Election commission: ‘People’s interest was high’
James Jimenez, spokesman for the elections commission, said there was a “high turnout” of voters Monday, and stressed that the tight security in voting areas had helped erase fears of violence by many.
“The peoples’ interest was high and so was the turnout of voters,” Jimenez said without giving specific numbers.
He said the government had also allowed dozens of foreigners to observe the polls, including 39 monitors from Japan, Canada, Australia, the United States and Europe.
“They were advised that if they go around, they will have to inform the police of their itinerary because there are security arrangements in places where they will go,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez said the result of the plebiscite would be known in the next four days when the commission finished the manual counting of votes from its main office in Manila.
Meanwhile, a breakaway faction of the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), slammed the holding of the plebiscite, saying they would continue to fight for full independence and separation from Manila.
If BIFF founder Hashim Salamat were still alive, he would not give in to the government’s offer of expanded autonomy, group spokesman Abu Misri Mama said.
“It’s just the same with what were offered to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF),” Mama said. “That’s the reason why the MILF was formed.”
The MNLF was the main Muslim body in the south, but it eventually gave up the fight for full independence and settled instead for autonomy in the south.
The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1978 and continued with the fight. In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace treaty with Manila. Its leader, Nur Misuari, later became governor of a Muslim autonomous region.
The region, however, remained mired in poverty, and subsequent governments had called the autonomous region a “failed experiment.” In 2013, followers of Misuari led a two-month siege in southern Zamboanga city that left more than 200 dead.
Misuari went into hiding but was cleared of all charges when President Duterte came to power three years ago. The government believes that the only way for autonomy for the MILF to work is for Misuari to be on board. Duterte had said he was separately talking to Misuari.
Backed by its own fighters mostly from the younger generation of Muslim rebels, the BIFF had also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group. However, it did not send fighters to the southern city of Marawi, which was reduced to rubble after IS-inspired fighters laid siege to the Islamic city in May 2017 and engaged government forces in a five-month battle before they were driven out.
Richel V. Umel, Ben Hajan, Joseph Jubelag and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Iligan City, Jolo, General Santos City and Cotabato, Philippines.
CORRECTION: An earlier version said Cotabato was located in Basilan province. It is in Maguindanao province.