The Bangsamoro plebiscite as it happened on the ground

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The second BOL plebiscite happens today. With the campaign for the plebiscite causing rifts, there will be a need for reconciliation if the Bangsamoro is to have a united front.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — History hinges on days that demand decisions, and the people of the Bangsamoro are going to steer their collective history along a new path towards the future.

Last January 21 and today, Feb. 6, residents from across the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and areas that have petitioned for inclusion in a new autonomous Bangsamoro region are set to cast their vote in a plebiscite that will ratify the recently passed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

While the BOL was passed during the administration of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, it is a law that benefits from a long history of peace negotiations but continues to bear the baggage of traditional Philippine politics.

Community-based, women-fronted campaign

Women were at the frontlines of the campaign for the upcoming Bangsamoro plebiscite as they knocked on doors in villages across the region, pushing for a yes vote.

A consortium of civil society organizations across the region has mobilized members and partners to conduct a house-to-house campaign prior to the plebiscite, including all 37 villages of Cotabato City, according to lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP).

“Homeowners find it easier to open their doors to welcome women campaigners, especially given security concerns that a number of communities have,” Sinarimbo said.

“There were barangays where local leaders with such a strong hold on their constituents said that they will not let the people vote, but despite this we were able to establish a presence in these communities through advocacy campaigns and hopefully this has helped in encouraging the people to vote,” he said.

Residents of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Cotabato City, and Isabela City have casted their votes on Jan. 21, while residents in a number of municipalities in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato, including areas that have petitioned for inclusion in the Bangsamoro region, will vote on Feb. 6.

The results of the Jan. 21 plebiscite is expected to affect the situation in communities that are scheduled to vote on Feb. 6, as political power struggles from the barangay level up to the provincial level experience further tension following initial results of the region-wide plebiscite.

Cotabato and Isabela, a tale of two cities

Cotabato City, a city that technically belongs to Region XII (Soccsksargen) has a unique relationship with the ARMM. It has been the “provisional seat” of power for the regional government, as stipulated in both Republic Act 6734 or the Organic Act for the ARMM, which paved the way for the creation of the region, and Republic Act 9054 which expanded the region’s territory with the inclusion of Basilan (excluding Isabela City) and Marawi City.

Both laws assign the Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) with the task of identifying the permanent seat of the regional government, “taking into consideration accessibility and efficiency in carrying out its mandate.”

Despite the RLA’s enactment of Muslim Mindanao Act No. 42 on Sep. 1995, plans to relocate the regional seat of power to Parang, Maguindanao never pushed through due to the lack of required infrastructure as stipulated in the said act. Meanwhile, the ARMM Compound located at Rosary Heights 7, Cotabato City became the site for regional offices of ARMM line agencies.

As reform initiatives in the regional government were institutionalized in the past seven years, under the leadership of Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman, the Office of the Regional Governor was prominently renamed as “Office of the Bangsamoro People.”

Isabela City, meanwhile, has a different but no less unique relationship with the region. Only an hour away from Zamboanga City via fast craft, it is part of Region IX, also known as the Zamboanga Peninsula region. Some people with ancestral roots in Basilan still call the city “Pasangan,” which was only named “Isabela” by Don Ramon Lubo, then marine chief of Zamboanga, after Spain’s Queen Isabel II.

These two cities and the relationship they have with the ARMM represent echoes of a not-so-distant past, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos issued Batas Pambansa Blg. 20. It followed the people’s aversion to a merger of 13 provinces into one autonomous region, and thereby provided for two autonomous regions.

Batas Pambansa Blg. 20 led to the “organization of the Sangguniang Pampook in each of the Regions Nine and Twelve,” providing both regions with its own Regional Legislative Assembly.

The sole autonomous region that we now know is based on the 1987 Constitution, drafted under President Corazon Aquino.

Sulu, where the political is personal

During the 2001 plebiscite, when residents of the ARMM voted on the amendments to RA 6734, the region voted in favor of its area’s expansion from four provinces, which eventually led to the inclusion of the province of Basilan (excluding Isabela City) which voted 89.3 percent in favor, and Marawi City which voted 91.6 percent in favor of its inclusion to the autonomous region.

At the time, Sulu registered a 86.5 percent yes vote in favor of the expansion of the region’s area.

Fifteen years later, the tides have changed. Political dynasties in the province have always figured in provincial affairs, and the Tan family is no exception. Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan II has filed a petition before the Supreme Court, asking to declare the BOL as “unconstitutional.”

In response, other political families in the province including the Amin, Arbison, Tulawie, and Omar clans have pledged their support for the BOL.

In a statement issued last October, Deputy Speaker and Sulu Rep. Munir M. Arbison slammed Tan’s petition, calling it “a shameless peddling of personal agenda and political propaganda” and described the move as “blatantly misguided, erroneous, and misleading.”

“The governor is merely using his position for the furtherance of his personal interest. His purpose is purely political and for his family’s vested interest, that is the full control of the province of Sulu,” Rep. Arbison said.

Meanwhile, ARMM Gov. Hataman said that “it is such a shame that it is a Moro who seeks to spoil this process all over again. We cannot allow the personal interests or anyone — especially not a Moro — to again sow discord where we so clearly need peace.”

Deliberate disinformation, threats to safety

The battle for votes inevitably spilled over to online social media, with Facebook groups and group chats filled with accounts posting fake news and misinterpretations of the BOL, many of which are meant to strike fear among non-Muslim residents in the ARMM.

Things took a different turn when a bomb exploded in Cotabato City last New Year’s Eve. Residents of the city were quick to attribute the bombing to either side of the debate, depending on which side is against their own personal stand on the city’s inclusion to the ARMM.

Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who has been vocal in encouraging residents to vote no in the plebiscite, mentioned in a Facebook video that she has received threats because of her stand on the city’s inclusion.

Meanwhile, ARMM officials have not been spared by fake news. At least one has been accused of mobilizing people to support a no vote in the plebiscite, contrary to the stand of the regional governor, while another has been accused of campaigning for a yes vote through an official event of the regional government. Both accusations were not true.

Partial and unofficial results

On Jan. 21, emotions were running high as initial figures were posted online, with Cotabato City looking like it was about to vote no to the inclusion, until the yes votes slowly overtook the results later during the day. Meanwhile, in Isabela City, journalist Julie Alipala reports that “barely 50 percent of the returns from the 232 clustered precincts have been canvassed.”

Out of the 90 that have already been scrutinized, Alipala writes that only 54 returns have been successfully canvassed while 43 have been set aside due to discrepancies, including a mismatch between the actual number of votes cast and the total number of yes and no votes.

In Alipala’s report, Isabela City Election Officer Rohaida Dia mentioned how only 190 people were identified went to vote in one precinct, but there were more than 300 votes cast.

Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur delivered landslide wins for the yes vote based on unofficial figures previously issued by poll-watchers, with a total of more than a million votes from both provinces in favor of the BOL’s ratification, while less than 20,000 voted against.

Updates from Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi were few and far in between, but Basilan and Tawi-tawi were expected to deliver yes votes, while the difference between yes and no votes was expected to be relatively smaller in Sulu than in other areas. Should the no votes win in Sulu, it would still be part of the new autonomous region if majority of the votes in the ARMM core areas vote yes to the BOL ratification.

On Jan. 25, the official count of the Commission on Elections show that 1,540,017 people have voted to ratify the BOL. Cotabato City has been voted to be part of the new Bangsamoro region while Isabela City in Basilan rejected its inclusion in BARMM.

The future of the Bangsamoro

It is hoped that problems encountered in the first round of the plebiscite will not be experienced by those who will cast their own vote today.

Members of civil society, alongside government officials and advocates, are preparing for what are considered to be more challenging areas to win, with every barangay or municipality that has petitioned for inclusion and will vote yes in the plebiscite also has to win the yes of their mother unit, i.e. the municipality or province they are currently a part of.

Claims about the general result of the plebiscite so far and its impact on the future of the region must be taken with a grain of salt, however. While the BOL was drafted in a way that aims to addresses systemic socio-political problems in the ARMM as well as gaps in its dealings with the national government, implementation of the newly ratified law is an entirely different challenge.

Even the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) admits just as much, with MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim saying that the front is also in the process of transition – from revolution to governance, from armed to parliamentary struggle.

One moment captured the range of the transition they are about to undergo as a revolutionary group. Voting for the first time in his life after responding to his full name being called out — Ahod Murad Balawag Ebrahim — a name that was once not known to the general public, he entered the voting precinct as he was greeted by people calling him Bapa, by people shouting “Allahu Akbar” as walked by.

He was wearing a green shirt bearing the logo of the UBJP, the political party he now leads as a nominee for chief minister of the new Bangsamoro region. He is enthusiastic, he says, seeing the overwhelming support of the people for the ratification of the BOL.

But he knows that a greater challenge awaits, and the people of the Bangsamoro are just as aware of this. With the campaign for the plebiscite causing rifts in relationships both political and personal, leaving a trail of tension in its wake, there will be a need for healing and reconciliation if the Bangsamoro is to have a united front as it continues its struggle towards self-determination and just and lasting peace.