Muslim majority areas of the southern Philippines have returned a resounding “yes” in this week’s referendum on greater autonomy.
The plan to create a self-administered ‘Bangsamoro’ (nation of Moros0 was backed by 85 per cent of voters, the election commission confirmed yesterday (Friday, January 25) paving the way for a three-year transition towards elections for a legislature, which will then choose an executive.
Monday’s referendum was the culmination of a peace process between separatists and Manila that aimed to settle decades — or even centuries — of conflict.
The instability, poverty, lack of education and opportunities has made the region a fertile recruitment ground for Islamist extremists, who exploited grievances about neglect and betrayal.
The endorsement by some 1.74 million voters hands the new Bangsamoro region greater powers to generate and invest money in infrastructure, schools and healthcare for its estimated five million inhabitants.
A further ballot will be held on February 6 to ask several other regions if they want to be part of the new autonomous region, which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Manila will continue to oversee defence, security, and foreign and monetary policy, and soon appoint a transition authority nominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Vice President Leni Robredo said it was vital the central government helped Bangsamoro to build “a progressive economy and responsible local government”.
“Let us guard and support the progress of this process because this is not yet the end of the fight for peace,” she said.
The autonomy vote comes at a time when numerous disillusioned MILF factions have broken away to follow more extreme islamist groups, some affiliated with the Islamic State.
There are also fears that fighters fleeing the Middle East have viewed Mindanao as a new stronghold for global Jihad.
Martial law has been in place in Mindanao since the terrorist Maute Group overran Marawi City in 2017 and occupied it for five months.
As we reported, three ‘remnants’ of islamist group were killed on Thursday when troops discovered a fortified jungle camp in Lanao del Sur.
Speaking on television on Thursday, Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s top peace negotiator, said he hoped the more radical separatist groups, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), would recognise the will of the people for peace.
“One of the BIFF leaders has already reached out,” he said, without elaborating.
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