COTABATO CITY -- Polling precincts opened Monday as Filipinos on the main southern island of Mindanao decide whether or not to approve a law that will expand the autonomous Muslim region, a key component of a 5-year-old peace deal with Moro rebels.
Queues formed here shortly after sunrise, with the Commission on Elections expecting a turnout of 2.5 million out of the 2.8 million registered voters. The plebiscite will be held over several days.
President Rodrigo Duterte, the first President from Mindanao, campaigned for a "yes" vote over the weekend. His predecessor, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, forged a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014 but the enabling legislation was passed under the incumbent's term.
"Yung mga nauna sa amin, mga ninuno namin, kaya sila namatay is para sa peace. So 100 percent ako sa BOL," Cotabato resident Sumaida Kabalo said during a peace rally over the weekend, referring to the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
(Our forefathers died for peace. That is why I am 100 percent for the BOL.)
An estimated 120,000 people have died from the decades-long conflict in the region that has left untapped some $312 billion in resources according to a Bloomberg estimate.
A yes vote, according to Duterte, will 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 MILF is ready to participate in the Bangsamoro government, after decades of revolutionary struggle, its vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar said on the eve of the plebiscite.
"Modesty aside, we have produced a few God-fearing and righteous leaders among the MILF. Konti lamang, hindi masyadong marami pero sa tingin namin ay puwede na ang dami nila (There's just a few of them, but they're enough). They can be leaders of the Bangsamoro government," Jaafar said.
The ARMM was created under a 1996 peace deal between then President Fidel Ramos and the Moro National Liberation Front. The MILF, at that time, was not party to the deal and broke away from the MNLF.
While the MILF is on board for the BOL, a breakaway faction, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters is not. State forces are also running after the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group that have pledged allegiance to Islamic State jihadists.
The mayor of Cotabao, Cynthia Guiani, campaigned against the inclusion of the city in the Bangsamoro, saying her constituents rejected inclusion in the autonomous region during 2 previous plebiscites.
The Bangsamoro can thrive even without Cotabato City, she said. Cotabato's population includes both Muslims and Christians.