By Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel
Tens of thousands of policemen and soldiers have been deployed to head off potential attacks by saboteurs, including trouble from Islamic State-linked militants, ahead of a vote next week on Muslim autonomy in the Philippine south, officials said Thursday.
Around 10,400 soldiers, backed by 9,900 elite police commandos, have fanned out in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur to safeguard those areas during the run-up to Monday’s plebiscite, a military spokesman said Thursday.
The vote on ratifying the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is also to take place in six towns in Lanao del Norte province as well as the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan province.
“The army divisions were formed into joint task forces for faster and seamless joint operations with air and naval components,” Army Col. Noel Detoyato, the spokesman, told reporters.
President Rodrigo Duterte was expected to join a rally in support of the law in Cotabato on Friday, just days after two people were killed when a bomb exploded outside a shopping mall in the city on New Year’s Eve.
Officials in Cotabato had publicly said that they did not want the city to be included in the proposed Muslim autonomous region, the centerpiece of the law signed by Duterte last year.
More recently, security officials had also raided a bomb factory near Cotabato, where they arrested five suspected members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front (BIFF), a Muslim rebel faction that split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to press the fight for independence.
BOL was passed four years after the government struck a peace deal with MILF, and promised them self-governance in an autonomous area of the south. The BOL, however, needs to be ratified through the vote on Jan. 21.
About two million voters in southern Philippines will cast their ballots next week, in a bid to ratify the Muslim autonomous region.
Some areas likely to vote ‘no’
In the final days leading up to the plebiscite, MILF leader Ebrahim Murad told BenarNews that his group was encountering problems in some cities and provinces proposed for inclusion in the BOL, with some officials expressing opposition to being part of the autonomous zone.
“But we will accept whatever the result of the plebiscite is as long as there’s no intervention, intimidation and manipulation from local officials,” Murad said. “Let the people vote. We will not intervene in the results.”
The BOL aims to give the poverty-stricken south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
The law will also give the people in the south control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and it will allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system.
Military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said there were enough soldiers and policemen to ensure that voters could cast their votes safely on Monday.
Madrigal said a special emphasis for the security operation would be in Maguindanao province and Cotabato city, where terrorist threats remained “high.”
“We assure you that voters will be safe [during] this coming plebiscite on Monday,” he said.
Ernie Palanan, the supervisor of the Commission on Elections, said a special detail of 100 policewomen had also completed a two-day workshop on how to handle the voting and ballots during the plebiscite.
Palanan said the policewomen would be on standby, ready to replace schoolteachers who would not report for work on Monday because of security threats.
“We will ensure that the polling precincts will remain open despite the security threats,” he said.
In Lanao del Sur, Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., commander of the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade, said soldiers would set up security cordons around schools converted as polling precincts. He said teams of policemen were tasked to bring the ballots from the municipal offices to the schools.
No to war
Abhoud Syed Lingga, head of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, said the MILF was hoping to get an overwhelming “yes” vote next week.
“The turnout of the plebiscite will be a political document of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF,” said Lingga, who also chairs the Bangsamoro People’s Consultative Assembly, which has been helping in the campaign for autonomy.
Lingga said the MILF could not afford a rejection of an agreement that it had worked hard for.
“The MILF will certainly not go back to war, but it will not also accept the old framework of ARMM. So everything will be in limbo,” he said.
The BOL is expected to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which has largely been considered a failed experiment in the south and failed to address deep pockets of poverty fueling discontent and the rise of radical Muslim groups.
Local history professor Tirmizy Abdullah, who is an expert on Muslim affairs, said Murad, along with his two close aides, also needed an overwhelming “yes” vote to assert their leadership in the MILF as an organization.
He said the MILF leaders were largely responsible for bringing the revolutionary organization to the peace table to forge an agreement with the government.
“It will not look [good] for the three if the voters reject the agreement. It will erode the stature of their leadership in the organization,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah said there were still rebel commanders in the MILF who remained loyal to its late founding leader, Hashim Salamat, a soft-spoken militant trained in Egypt who founded the rebel group. He died of natural causes in 2003, leaving the reins of MILF to his trusted military aide, Murad.
Abdullah said a rejection could disintegrate the leadership structure of the MILF, and lead to different factions.
Abdullah, who teaches at Mindanao State University, said residents of southern Marawi city were also pinning their hopes on Murad bringing them back to their homes.
Much of Marawi, the south’s only predominantly Islamic city, was destroyed last year when militants led by the Islamic State’s Filipino leader, Isnilon Hapilon, laid siege to the city for five months. Filipino forces pounded Marawi, leading to the deaths of some 1,200 people and the displacement of thousands.
More than a year after the hostilities ended, much of Marawi has remained in a state of disrepair, with thousands of people still living in temporary shelters.
“Murad made a lot of promises that he will bring the residents once the autonomy is set up and the residents are hoping that he makes good of his promise,” Abdullah said.
But the consequences would be severe should Murad fail to deliver on his promise.
“The call of Islamic militancy is still being heard in Lanao del Sur. It might be the reason for the residents to embrace it,” Abdullah said.
Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.