MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday made his final pitch for a measure that would establish a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao with self-governance powers, another step forward in efforts to bring peace to the long restive southern Philippines.
Some 2.8 million voters are expected to cast their vote in a plebiscite for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6, a crucial step in the Bangsamoro people’s decades-long struggle for self-determination.
If the BOL is approved by the people, the Autonomous Region in Mindanao (ARMM) shall be replaced by the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), an entity that will be led by a transition team dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
In his speech in a peace assembly in Cotabato City, Duterte said the people’s approval of the law “will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than half a century of armed struggle in the region, it will also serve as a testament to your determination to bring genuine peace and development in Muslim Mindanao to an autonomous government that truly represents and understand the needs of the Muslim people.”
“Mga mahal kong Moro brothers and sisters, magboto kayo ng ‘yes’. Eh ‘pag hindi, hindi na ako punta dito kailanman,” he added in jest.
(My beloved Moro brothers and sisters, please vote ‘yes’. If you don’t, I might no longer come here ever again.)
The formerly secessionist MILF, with which government signed a comprehensive peace agreement in 2014, faces an uphill climb in some areas, particularly in Isabela City, Basilan and Cotabato City, which the group considers the heart of the Bangsamoro homeland.
The BOL is facing challenges in the Supreme Court, but the plebiscite will nonetheless proceed as the high court has yet to hold oral arguments on the petitions filed against the proposed measure.
Previous attempts to set up a new Bangsamoro political entity in the restive south failed in the past administrations due to constitutional challenges and a botched police mission that saw MILF fighters get involved in a massacre of state troops.
MILF: IT’S NOW OR NEVER
In his speech, MILF chair Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim said stakeholders who remain wary of the BOL must consider the plebiscite a rare opportunity to end the Bangsamoro people's decades-long struggle for self-determination.
Initially wanting to separate from the Philippine government, the MILF has agreed to strike a deal with the state where the group and the constituents they claim to represent are given greater political and economic autonomy in the Bangsamoro homeland.
“Nanawagan tayo sa kanila na sana bigyan nila ng chance itong BOL dahil minsan lang itong dumating sa atin. Siguro hindi na ito darating ulit kung hindi natin kukunin ngayon,” he said.
(I appeal to you to give the BOL a chance since this is a once in a lifetime chance. Maybe it will never come again if we don’t grab the chance now.)
“I hope na 'yung mga hindi pa rin sumusuporta ay makita nila kung gaano ka-importante ang kanilang suporta para sa ating kaunlaran.”
(My hope for those who still do not support the BOL is for them to see how important is their approval in our progress.)
Ebrahim also encouraged MILF members to give their best as they embark on a new chapter in their struggle.
“To our valiant mujahideen (those engaged in jihad), as we transition from revolution to governance, from war to peace, and from bullets to ballots, we are truly grateful for all the sacrifices you have endured and today, we have come at a time when we are at the finishing line of our struggle,” Ebrahim said.
“As we transition from revolution to governance, our success lies [in] how we are going to mobilize our people and the other people of the area in supporting us in order to succeed in this next level of our struggle.”
The Commission on Elections expects a 75-percent voter participation in the two-part plebiscite.
The Jan. 21 plebiscite will see voters from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Cotabato City, and Isabela City in Basilan decide on the fate of the Bangsamoro law.
The rest of the core territories, including contiguous areas that asked to be included in the new Bangsamoro area, will get to vote on Feb. 6.
The BOL seeks to install a Bangsamoro political entity in place of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It is envisioned to grant wider self-rule to predominantly Muslim provinces and cities.
Duterte and Moro leaders have warned that a failure to ratify the BOL might lead to more violence in the region still grappling from the threats posed by Islamist extremists.