MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — The new law for the Muslim minority in southern Philippines was ratified Friday night, paving the way for the creation of a more powerful, self-governing autonomous region that will seek to clamp down on violent extremism and address chronic poverty there.
Residents of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which will implement a 2014 peace agreement between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group in the country.
A total of 1,540,017 residents voted for ratification while only 198,750 rejected the BOL.
“The Comelec, sitting en banc as the National Plebiscite Board of Canvassers hereby proclaims... the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as deemed ratified, considering that majority of votes cast in all provinces and cities in the present ARMM, voting as one geographic area, is in favor of the approval of the organic law,” poll body chairman Sheriff Abas announced.
The new region will be composed of the existing 5 provinces of ARMM, and Cotabato City, in what is considered a crucial victory for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A second round of the plebiscite on Feb. 6 will determine whether the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) would still be expanded.
The plebiscite will cover 6 towns in Lanao Del Norte and 39 villages in North Cotabato. Another 28 barangays from the province were allowed to choose if they want to be part of the new region.
Cotabato City voted to be part of the BARMM in a highly contentious plebiscite marred by allegations of vote-buying, voter disenfranchisement, and harassment by MILF combatants.
A total of 36,682 voted for inclusion, while 24,994 voted against it. The 54.22-percent voter turnout in the city was below the regional average of 85 percent.
Two previous plebiscites saw Cotabato City rejecting the option to be part of the ARMM - first in 1989 and again in 2001.
Isabela City in Basilan again voted against inclusion. The total affirmative votes were 19,032 compared to 22,441 votes against joining the new region.
Its mother unit, the province of Basilan, voted in favor of the city being part of the BARMM. The affirmative votes totaled 144,640 and the negative votes 8,487.
But since the BOL required a “double majority” — meaning both the city and the province should vote in the affirmative — Isabela City will remain outside of the BARMM.
Raissa Jajurie, a lawyer for the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, called attention to reports of alleged “erasures” and discrepancies in some 80 plebiscite returns in Isabela City.
The National Board of Canvassers took note of the concern and proceeded to the tabulation.
The province of Sulu also voted against the ratification of the BOL. But since the ARMM voted as one geographical area, the rest of its provinces ovewhelmed the Sulu vote.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan II earlier questioned the constitutionality of the BOL before the Supreme Court.
His petition criticized the absence of an option in the BOL to allow current ARMM areas, such as Sulu, to “opt out” of the new autonomous region.
The MILF will lead the Bangsamoro’s transition government until the region’s first regular election in 2022.
Vice President Leni Robredo on Friday said the ratification of the BOL was a "historic victory" for the Filipino people.
"Ang pagraratipika ng Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) ay isang makasaysayang tagumpay na dapat ipagmalaki ng lahat ng Pilipino, lalo na ng mga kapatid nating mula sa Mindanao," Robredo said in a statement.
"Bantayan at suportahan natin ang patuloy na pagsulong ng prosesong ito, dahil hindi pa dito nagtatapos ang laban para sa kapayapaan. Buong-buo ang aking pananalig na kapayapaan ang magdadala sa bawat mamamayan ng Bangsamoro ng magandang buhay."
The European Union Delegation in the Philippines, meanwhile, called the creation of the BARMM "a significant milestone in the history of the Philippines."
"The European Union has been a staunch supporter of the Mindanao Peace Process throughout the years, expressing its political support, encouraging all sides to pursue a peaceful solution and providing substantial financial support for the process," it said in a statement.
The EU Delegation vowed to continue its support for the implementation of the BOL for "long-lasting peace, development and prosperity for the benefit of Mindanao and the Filipino people."