Tens of thousands of Muslims and followers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former rebel group, rallied Monday in favor of an upcoming plebiscite aimed at giving them full control over an autonomous homeland in the southern Philippines.
Many in the crowd wore shades of green as they trooped to the downtown area of southern Cotabato city, in a festive demonstration as they threw their support behind a campaign for the full implementation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). Other rallies to kick off campaigning around next month’s vote on the law took place elsewhere on Monday in Muslim areas of the south, officials said.
A “yes vote is a vote for peace, justice and progress, while a no is a vote for uncertainty,” MILF chief Murad Ebrahim said as he addressed the huge gathering at a sports complex here.
Security was tight but instead of toting guns, demonstrators carried banners and shouted slogans demanding the right to self-determination for minority Muslims, who have been marginalized for years as other parts of the surrounding Mindanao region prospered.
“I call upon everyone to discern and exercise wisdom to make the right decision. The BOL is not an ordinary piece of legislation,” Murad said.
“It is a good law which we can use to start in establishing a good place for our peoples to live in, free from fear, hunger, and oppression. Moreover, the BOL is not given to us on a silver platter. We paid for it with the blood, sweat and tears of our people,” he went on.
Murad stressed that MILF and southern Muslims would do everything “in order that this law will be ratified.”
The BOL aims to give the poverty-stricken 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, if and when it is ratified through the late January plebiscite, will also give the people in the south control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and it will allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system.
The plebiscite on ratifying the law 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.
Philippine authorities hope that the BOL will end a nearly 40-year conflict, which has killed more than 120,000 people on Mindanao, the country’s second largest island. As part of a deal struck with Manila over BOL, the MILF had also agreed to disband its fighting force.
MILF peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the launching of the campaign for the law’s ratification was organized by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and simultaneously held in major cities and provinces in the area known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
“This is to educate the people about the benefits of ratification of the BOL,” Iqbal told reporters here.