COTABATO CITY -- A plebiscite on a proposed law that will grant wider autonomy to the Muslim region in the south proceeded on Monday, with officials reporting flying voters and intimidation from armed men.
A grenade was also found near 3 schools in this city, which was later detonated without causing injuries. The polls have been generally peaceful so far, according to the Commission on Elections chief for the region, Rey Sumalipao.
Approving the Bangsamoro Organic Law is among the final steps under a 5-year old peace agreement between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation front aimed at ending decades of strife that left some 120,000 people killed.
At the Cotabato Chinese Institute, residents chased some 4 alleged flying voters, who escaped by scaling walls. A 17-year-old member of the group was left behind and confessed that he is not a resident of the area, said Mayor Cynthia Sayadi.
Several MILF identification cards were recovered from the teenager, said Sayadi, who is opposed to her city's inclusion in the Bangsamoro.
"Itong mga ganitong insidente, it's all over the city. Ang dami-daming mga flying voters," she told ANC.
"Hindi rin napipigilan iyung mga MILF na nandyan sa labas na tinatakot iyung mga residente, lalong-lalo na sa mga Christian areas," the mayor alleged.
(Incidents like this are all over the city. There are so many flying voters. MILF members are also not barred from intimidating the residents, especially in Christian areas.)
Some voting centers opened past the 7 a.m. schedule after 99 teachers failed to show up and man the poll. Seventy-two policemen replaced the absent teachers in the plebiscite committee.
Some teachers received threats via text message days ahead of the plebiscite, the Department of Education-Cotabato said.
Rains and delays in the delivery of election materials also stalled the plebiscite in some ARMM areas, said the region's police director, Chief Supt. Graciano Mijares.
On the eve of the plebiscite, a grenade also exploded outside the house of a judge who criticized BOL. No one was hurt.
Despite these incidents, core areas of the proposed Bangsamoro region are expected to ratify it, according to analysts.
"I'm tired of the violence because my father is one of the victims," said 22-year-old Jembrah Abas, adding her father was slain by unidentified attackers after advocating for peace.
The election "is on the 20th anniversary of his death. I'm so sick of the violence", she told AFP.
Roughly 2.8 million voters will be watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, amid fears rival insurgent groups could use violence to try to disrupt the poll.
The peace process began in the 1990s and does not include hardline Islamist factions, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, which are also active in the southern Philippines.
"Their motive is to sow terror," Philippine national police chief Oscar Albayalde said, referring to the rival groups. "They don't really have any other cause."
The government and MILF hope that a new, stable Bangasmoro will attract investment to a region where brutal poverty and perennial bloodshed has fueled recruitment by radical groups.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who also hails from Mindanao, has long backed the creation of an autonomous region for the island's Muslims.
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Carlito Galvez urged voters to "be brave enough to go to the precincts."
Under the terms of the law which lays out the region's powers, Bangsamoro will get $950 million in development funds over the next 10 years, as well as chunk of the tax revenue generated within its borders.
The national government will keep control over the police, though the leadership of the autonomous area will be closely involved in security matters.
Final results are expected to be released within 4 days of the voting, with an approval triggering the demobilization of a third of MILF's fighters, which it says number 30,000.
Muslim rebels have long been battling for independence or autonomy on Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland dating back to when Arab traders arrived there in the 13th century.
In fact, the new entity would enlarge and replace a similar autonomous zone in the same part of the southern Philippines, which struggled to complete development projects and was plagued by violence.
The proposed region includes the city of Marawi, which was seized by jihadists flying the black flag of IS in 2017 and who were only dislodged by a five-month battle that flattened swathes of the town.
Experts say the devolution of powers to the region is one of the best opportunities in recent memory to bring down the persistently high levels of lawlessness in the Philippines' south.
However, corruption and mismanagement are perennial problems across the nation of 105 million, and doubts remain over whether resources promised for development would find their way to Bangasmoro.
Experts also said not all groups would support the change.
"In the short term, there are a number of groups and politicians that are going to lose out," Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy, told AFP.
"So there are significant short term risks."
With reports from Joshua Melvin, Agence France-Presse; Patrick Quintos, Dexter Ganibe and Arianne Apatan, ABS-CBN News