COTABATO, Philippines – Over two million Filipinos voted on Monday in a referendum to ratify a much-awaited peace agreement with Islamist separatists for creating an autonomous region in restive Mindanao of the Philippines.
The plebiscite asked voters if they backed the Bangsamoro Organic Law on creating a self-ruled region to end decades of separatist conflict in the region.
The vote follows an agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that has been fighting for independence in southern Philippines.
A clear “yes” would create the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao that will have greater fiscal autonomy, legislature powers, own justice system based on Islamic precepts and more authority to manage its resources.
The Muslim community came out overwhelmingly to participate in the vote which saw an estimated 80 percent turnout. The counting will begin Tuesday and the result is likely to be announced Friday.
“I am voting yes, because this is a very important day for us. We are voting for our freedom,” Husniya Ismail, 44, told EFE.
“Inshallah (god willing), Bangsamoro will become a peaceful nation,” said Ismail, before voting in Datu Odin Sinsuat, a province in Maguindanao.
Ismail, a housewife, dreams of owning a restaurant and live a peaceful life in the region, where currently evacuation centers are filled with people displaced by violence.
She looks forward to a region with resources, access to education and decent jobs so that her three children don’t have to migrate for work, like she did when she was younger and worked as a housekeeper in Gulf countries of Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Oman.
Another voter, Mario Albino, 63, said he wanted peace in the region for his sons and grandchildren.
But Albino did not agree with some former MILF members who have been integrated into the Transition Commission that will govern Bangsamoro until the 2022 elections.
“We already have the AFP (armed forces). We don’t need any other combatants around here,” said Albino, skeptical of the integration of MILF – which has a backing of the Duterte government and a large number of ARMM residents – in politics.
A few kilometers away, in central Cotabato, Alano Cabile, 60, sees the new law as a “chance to the peace.”
Cabile said he and his family moved to Cotabato in 1976 since his hometown Gatopia was torn away by war.
“I think they are hungry of peace and change,” he said, referring to large number of voters.
For Almihim Candao, 21, Bangsamoro Organic Law is a way to peace and would allow the economic development of the region.
He hoped that the new autonomous government would raise the budget for education which “is more than enough to make our future better.”
“Most of us, because of the war, we couldn’t really send kids to school,” added Candao, who in 2005 lost his elder brother in the war.
Cotabato, with some 300,000 residents, will be Bangsamoro’s capital, if the law is ratified.
However, not everyone is in favor of Bangsamoro in Cotabato, especially among its 65 percent Christian population, a group which is economically more powerful and fears that the new norm could discriminate them or could end up in the imposition of strict Islamic code called Sharia.