Hopes high for peace in restive Mindanao
COTABATO CITY – Hopes are high that the “usual” shootouts and other gun-related violence in the restive south may finally disappear as residents of Muslim Mindanao on Monday voted in a plebiscite for wider Bangsamoro autonomy, one of the final steps in the peace pact between the government and the country’s largest Moro rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.
The group’s chairman, Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, said the plebiscite signifies the transition from the MILF’s armed struggle to local governance, leaving behind nearly 5 decades of clashes with state troops that left some 150,000 people dead, as both the rebels and the government embark on the same journey of peace and development.
“Gusto ko makita dito sa amin is a more economically secure na Bangsamoro. Safe and sound, para mawala na po ang mga barilan,” said 24-year-old Ilham Lagantao after voting “yes” for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) at a polling precinct in Barangay Simuay Crossing in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao on Monday morning.
(I want to see a more economically secure Bangsamoro region. Safe and sound, so that there will be no more gunfights.)
While the Bangsamoro law, which promises greater autonomy for Muslim Mindanao, provides a space for reforms that may finally bring peace in the south, changes will not come overnight, according to Francisco “Pancho” Lara Jr. of International Alert Philippines, a group that monitors incidents of conflict and violence in this part of the country.
On the first day of the plebiscite, which covers Cotabato City, Isabela City in Basilan, and the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Lara said they monitored areas which curiously had zero "no" votes for the BOL, which is “impossible unless there were command votes."
Lara noted that Mindanao has a long history of giving zero votes in previous presidential and local polls.
“A lot of people say this is a new era of political maturity for the Bangsamoro because ‘yes’ won. I would say there was a lot of improvements but the power of political clans and the power of armed groups to dictate developments at the local level remain, and that will be one of the biggest challenges as well for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority,” he said.
In Butig town, Lanao del Sur, for instance, Lara said the group monitored over 11,000 voted “yes” while nobody voted “no” for the BOL, said Lara. Similar patterns were monitored in the “iranun Corridor” and the “SPMS Box,” referring to the towns of Shariff Aguak, Pagatin, Mamasapano, and Salibo.
International Alert Philippines said it recorded 95 incidents of violence across the plebiscite areas on Monday, and most of them were minor. There were reports of scuffles, explosives found, and “very few” cases of ballot snatching in some places. Lara said it was “probably the most peaceful democratic exercise in the Bangsamoro in the last decade.”
The MILF promised to surrender a third of their arms immediately after the Bangsamoro law is ratified. But Lara believes some of its former combatants will still keep a few of their weapons, and the challenge now for the group is to implement policies that will fight the proliferation of illegal firearms in Muslim Mindanao.
POLITICAL CLANS TO REMAIN UNDER BANGSAMORO GOV'T
Political analyst Ramon Casiple, executive director of the group Institute of Political and Electoral Reform, said he does not expect powerful political clans in Muslim Mindanao, which usually control private armed groups, to go gently into the night and give up power under the new Bangsamoro government, which will replace the ARMM.
But Casiple said a genuine political party system in the Bangsamoro parliament, better than what the Philippines has now, could put these influential clans in a field of fair play, where democratic processes, instead of guns, would prevail.
“A genuine political party system means the clan will not vanish. Ilalagay mo ‘yung clan sa isang sitwasyon na may new rules of the game na more democratic, more equitable, fair play, wala lang violence,” he told ABS-CBN News, stressing that this is both a challenge and opportunity for the MILF leadership.
(You will put clans in a situation where there are new rules of the game, which are more democratic, equitable, fair play, and no violence.)
Casiple said the MILF will face challenges in the transition because they would have to deal with opposition to government policies. He said the group should not lose sight of their original goals as they transition from revolution to governance.
“Whatever they do will have an impact beyond generations,” he said.
Both Casiple and Lara were resource speakers in a post-plebiscite forum of the Institute for Autonomy Governance at the Notre Dame University in this city.