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Voters Are Deciding Extent of Muslim Autonomy in Philippines

Filipino Muslims join a protest at the Philippine Congress, Feb. 3, 2016, at suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines.
Filipino Muslims join a protest at the Philippine Congress, Feb. 3, 2016, at suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines.

More than 50 years of Muslim rebel violence, which has killed 121,000 and attracted the terrorist group Islamic State, came down to the ballot box this week. Voters in two cities and three other regions of the southern island Mindanao combined on Monday to ratify a law that creates the country’s strongest ever semi-autonomous Muslim region.

Another province and seven more towns will cast votes February 6 to finalize ratification and help set the region’s boundaries.

Though the region of roughly 4.3 million people won’t keep its own army or restrict entry by other Filipinos, the government is expected to give it enough local control so that Muslims get a sense of the autonomy they have fought for since the 1960s. Proponents of the move hope the sense of self-rule might in turn stop fighting between armed rebels and government troops, battles that sometimes catch civilians in their net, and let the population develop economically.

“It will help our lives, for as long as the leaders are committed to peace and development, I think this is a major stepping stone for peace and tranquility,” said Monara Maruhom, assistant dean of the King Faisal Center for Islamic, Arabic and Asian Studies at Mindanao State University. “At least we will give peace a chance for our future generation.”

Final stage for new region

The voting so far has effectively upheld the law approved in July by Congress and signed by President Rodrigo Duterte to form the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Vote counts will also determine which cities and provinces will join the region. In one surprise turn, the hub city of Cotabato voted 59-41 percent to join the region.

Bangsamoro will replace an existing 12,536 square-kilometer tract carved out for Muslim groups in Mindanao 29 years ago, but widely considered ineffective at offering autonomy.

“The outcome of the plebiscite is crucial not only to the establishment of the future political structure of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, but more so it would determine how people in the defined areas think about themselves as a group belonging to a new political structure,” said Henelito Sevilla, assistant international relations professor at University of the Philippines.

Money, resources and control

The half-year-old Bangsamoro Organic Law, which authorizes the new region, calls for the central government to give its local leadership grants equal to 5 percent of national tax and customs revenue. Leaders of the old region had to apply for funding. The central government also will pay $95 million annually over 10 years for the rehabilitation of conflict areas.

Revenue from locally extracted coal, gas, oil and uranium will be equally shared with the Philippine government.

Muslims have lived in Mindanao’s west and its outlying islands for more than 500 years. Many resent the Christian majority's control of minerals and fossil fuels from their resource-rich part of the archipelago. The last large-scale violence erupted in 2017 as troops battled Islamic State-backed rebels in the city of Marawi, which would be in the new region.

Duterte told a 7,000-person assembly in Cotabato last week that ratification would “pave the way for fair and just distribution of land and resources,” on the surrounding, largely impoverished island of Mindanao, the presidential office website says.

The Bangsamoro Organic Law will “lead to better governance, inclusive political empowerment, and enhanced systems for transparency and accountability,” Duterte said.

Win-win, for now

Duterte wins from the polling victories Monday, said Maria Ela Atienza, a University of the Philippines political science professor. The president had campaigned for change in Mindanao before his 2016 election. The Mindanao native also advocates a federal system of government giving provinces around the country more local decision-making power.

“I personally would also see this as an opportunity to test whether a semi-federal setup can work, because the power given to the (Bangsamoro Organic Law) is vast,” said Antonio Contreras, political scientist at De La Salle University in the Philippines.

Mindanao’s once heavily armed rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, will find the vote “beneficial” in the short term, Atienza said, because it had advocated setting up the region since signing a peace deal with the government in 2014. The front is expected to take a lead role in governing the region.

Long-term pitfall potential

“No” voters may fear the Bangsamoro region will further divide rival Muslim groups or split Muslims from Christians who now co-exist, Philippine media reports say. In the offshore province of Sulu, where the violent Abu Sayyaf kidnapping outfit has a stronghold, voters rejected ratification.

About 20 Muslim rebel groups still operate in Mindanao. One splintered off from the front and another has competed with the front in the past for influence in Mindanao. Those excluded from Bangsamoro leadership might turn to Islamic State, scholars said last year.

"It’s also a challenge for the government and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) because they have to prove that they represent not just the MILF, they can work with different sectors, because even if this gets approved, there are also significant political elites both Muslims and Christians as well as other groups who disagree with this law,” Atienza said.