MANILA - Authorities beefed up checkpoints and implemented a liquor ban across a large swath of Mindanao on Sunday, the eve of a plebiscite for the ratification of a law giving wider self-rule to Moros.
President Rodrigo Duterte had banked on the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) to correct "historical injustices" suffered by the Moros.
Some 2.8 million voters are expected participate in the Jan. 21 plebiscite of the measure, which is part of a peace deal between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014.
"We will make the necessary arrangements to ensure that the polling places are safe," said Commission on Elections spokesperson James Jimenez.
"That's our primary concern, the safety, of course, of the voters and the safety of the election workers, our plebiscite committees," he added.
Around 20,000 policemen and soldiers were deployed to maintain security and man checkpoints in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Cotabato City, and Isabela City in Basilan, where Monday's plebiscite will be held.
The sale of alcohol and campaigns for and against BOL were also prohibited in these areas starting 12 a.m. Sunday.
"Let the people vote... Ang ipakita dito natin iyung masiguro iyung orderly and safe na conduct of the elections," military Chief of Staff Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. told reporters.
(We will show that we can guarantee the orderly and safe conduct of the elections.)
Police were also investigating the possible link between the plebiscite and a shooting that killed a man and his son in a town in Maguindanao province on Saturday.
Also on Saturday, hundreds of red-clad BOL detractors and supporters in green held separate motorcades in Cotabato, with no untoward incident reported.
Among measure's critics are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway group of the MILF, as well as some officials of Sulu province, said exiled communist leader Jose Maria Sison in a statement.
Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan II, he noted, earlier petitioned the Supreme Court to block the BOL plebiscite.
Sison alleged that Duterte is "setting the stage for a bigger armed conflict in the Bangsamoro and adjoining areas."
"What Duterte is doing is to use the BOL to divide and rule the Bangsamoro by making the various Bangsamoro forces fight each other," he added.
Duterte on Saturday 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.”
The President, who hails from the southern city of Davao, also said Friday that he would like to meet MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari soon.
Moro groups' struggle for self-governance has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives, although most of the deaths occurred in the 1970s. Ceasefires put in place for the past decade to allow peace talks have largely held.
With reports from Dexter Ganibe, Ron Gagalac and Roxanne Arevalo, ABS-CBN News