COTABATO CITY – “Yes” and “no” banners hang in various public places in this city as over 100,000 citizens prepare to vote on Monday for or against the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which supposedly promises greater autonomy in a new Muslim Mindanao region.
Like the banners scattered around the city, citizens also gave mixed reactions on whether they support the law that will create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, with some saying they will vote for it, while some saying otherwise.
For one, Sumaida Kabalo, 19, said she will vote in favor of the Bangsamoro law as she sees this as a way to finally close and heal the wounds from decades of conflict that saw bloodshed between soldiers and Moro rebels.
“‘Yung mga nauna sa amin, mga ninuno namin, kaya sila namatay is para sa peace. So 100 percent ako sa BOL,” the young Cotabato resident said in rally for the BOL in a city state college on Saturday.
Youth vote is important in Cotabato, as the Commission on Elections said a huge number from total 113,751 registered voters here are aged 18 to 35.
Meanwhile, several residents who refused to be named in this report said they are against the Bangsamoro law, particularly the inclusion of Cotabato in the proposed autonomous region, saying the city will do just fine in its current place.
“Ang mahirap diyan, kung maipasa, ‘yung mga mamumuno dito sa baba,” a man in RH8 village told ABS-CBN News Sunday, eve of the plebiscite.
(What we fear is the kind of governance we will experience in the local level.)
“Sabihin nila maging peaceful ang Cotabato City? Peaceful naman na dito,” another man from a nearby village told this news team.
(They said Cotabato will be peaceful in the new Bangsamoro region? It's already peaceful here.)
This southern city’s mayor, Cynthia Guiani, has been campaigning against the inclusion of the Cotabato in the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, despite the endorsement of none other than President Rodrigo Duterte who came here in support of the law last Friday.
Guiani argued that Cotabato, a city that previously rejected 2 plebiscites and opted not to be a part of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, can thrive without being included in the new Bangsamoro region.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim earlier stressed the importance of Cotabato in the Bangsamoro region, saying the city, which has also seen the conflict in the south first hand, has always been part of their struggle.
Mixed Christian vote in Cotabato
Even Christians in this city have mixed opinions on the Bangsamoro law, said Bernardo Carmelo, pastoral staff of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, involved in educating Catholic communities about the landmark legislation.
If the Bangsamoro law passes, Christians and Lumad groups will be given a seat in the new government's parliament.
“More or less po hati ang community natin sa Bangsamoro Organic Law. Ang iba, sabi nila, maganda ‘yung program pero ang fear nila ay ‘yung mga magpapatakbo nito,” the Cotabato native told ABS-CBN News on Sunday.
(More or less the vote of the Christian community here on the Bangsamoro law is mixed. Some say the program is good but they fear who will possibly govern the new proposed region.)
Carmelo said while the church in Cotabato has remained neutral, it launched an information campaign about the Bangsamoro law among the Christian communities to help the people decide on the day of plebiscite. But he said some areas were resistant to their information drive.
The church worker said it was very important to educate Christians in Cotabato about the Bangsamoro law because several “fake news” reports spreading in the city.
“Kunwari ipagbabawal na raw ang pagbebenta ng baboy. Hindi na rin raw puwede ang ibang religion. May mga kumakalat na ganun. Pero naipaliwanag naman ng leaders natin na hindi totoo ‘yun,” he shared.
(For example, there was this rumor spreading that pork will be forbidden in this city, and so will other religions be. We explained to them that those aren’t true.)
This ABS-CBN News team sought the opinion of more residents in the city but almost all of them, whether they are in favor or against the Bangsamoro law, refused to speak because of fear that they might draw the ire of some people with opposing views.
This city has been placed under Comelec control, meaning soldiers and policemen are under the supervision of the poll body. Even a week before the plebiscite, state forces have been stationed in nearly all corners of the city to make sure no conflict will arise before, during, and after the voting.
The more important outcome
The final decision of the Bangsamoro plebiscite—whether it is a yes or a no—is not the most significant outcome of the referendum, a political analyst said, stressing that what matters more is how democracy will work in this process.
“The significance of this exercise is not whether it is a yes or a no. The more important issue is whether or not we have demonstrated that the voice of the people is heard in this process,” Ramon Casiple said in a forum at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance’s (IAG) office here on Sunday.
“That means the political integration of the Moro rebels would be complete. What’s also considered important is that the exercise will be peaceful, will be completely transparent, and all stakeholders will accept the result,” he added.
Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr., senior policy adviser of the IAG, also stressed that the plebiscite is not the end of the peace process as it is only a mere part of the developments that resulted from years of negotiations between the government and rebels.
Whatever the results may be, Mercado said no one should be dismayed as the process of peace continues after the plebiscite.
“Hindi nagwawakas ang lahat sa plebisitiong ito. Patuloy ang proseso. Hindi dapat tayo madismaya. Wala hong tuldukan sa peace process,” he said in the same forum.
(Everything does not end here in the plebiscite. The process goes on. We should not be dismayed.)
“Kailangan huminahon tayong lahat . Kasi hindi naman dapat natin asahan na kagyat babagsak ang karahasan. Simula pa lamang ito,” added Francisco “Pancho” Lara Jr. of the conflict monitoring group International Alert Philippines.
Lara said former rebels should show in this plebiscite that they are willing to accept whatever the results will be as they take part in a democratic process.
By the time the BOL is ratified, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is expected to decommission their firearms, which is still part of the peace pact with the government.
But Lara said the public should view this decommissioning of firearms as more of a symbolic event as he does not expect the rebels to just give up all of their weapons that quickly.
What matters most, he added, is how the new Bangsamoro government that will be establish will tighten the laws against loose firearms.