Securing the historic BOL vote
New Year’s Eve. Imagine the horror of shoppers and city folk — all looking forward to a peaceful celebration with their kith and kin at home — when a bomb blew off right outside the entrance of the South Seas Mall in Cotabato City on Dec. 31. In the aftermath, two lay dead, including the driver of Bangsamoro Transition Commissioner Melanio Ulama; more than 30 others were wounded.
But the impact of this latest act of violence to rock Mindanao goes far beyond the unfortunate dead and maimed, as the bomb reverberated across a conflict-riven region long striving for and now at a historic crossroads to peace.
Authorities locked down the city to hunt the perpetrators and threw around theories that Islamic State-inspired groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the breakaway Daulah Islamiyah planted the improvised explosive device outside the mall. Spokespersons for both groups later denied their role in the carnage.
The incident is worrisome, as only a few weeks separate it from Jan. 21, a date with history when residents of a number of Mindanao provinces decide in a plebiscite whether to affirm the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), a new mechanism meant to provide greater autonomy for their homeland. The new Bangsamoro region, which will supersede the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), will give the Bangsamoro people a fresh start at self-governance in their ancestral land, an aspiration that has engendered violent secessionism and mired the region in a cycle of violence and poverty for decades. More than any other effort at finding a just and lasting solution to the strife in Mindanao, the BOL has come closest to laying the institutional groundwork for peace in the south, which is also under threat by IS-inspired extremism as seen in the siege of Marawi City in 2017.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim condemned the Cotabato City blast as an “act of cowardice, inhuman and atrocious.” The MILF is a critical partner in the current drive for peace, and has much at stake in the BOL plebiscite; the impasse with the national government over fears of a republic dismembered by the new political entity was resolved when Murad’s group dropped its demand for Bangsamoro independence, disarmed its fighters and decommissioned its arms in favor of self-rule. Peace and development would lure young Filipino Muslims away from extremism, said Murad; a political settlement acceptable to a majority of Muslims would leave splinter rebel groups little choice but to cross over, he added in July last year after President Duterte signed the BOL bill into law. The success of the new Bangsamoro will rest on the continued ability of the former MILF and its constituencies to execute their part of the agreement, helped along by essential support from the national government.
It’s imperative, then, for the military and police to pull out all the stops to prevent a repeat of the New Year’s Eve attack—itself a breach of the much-vaunted martial law across Mindanao that was extended anew by Congress until Dec. 31 at Mr. Duterte’s behest. Efforts by disgruntled groups at derailing the coming historic vote will only intensify, hence heightened security and better intelligence work by law enforcement authorities are needed to ensure that the Bangsamoro people can exercise their right to chart their own political destiny come Jan. 21 (for voters in the ARMM) and Feb. 6 (for those in Lanao del Norte province except Iligan City, six towns in North Cotabato, and the rest that petitioned for inclusion in the future Bangsamoro region) under peaceful, orderly conditions.
On top of security, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato City and ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman have raised another concern: Political leaders opposed to the BOL are said to be sowing dangerous misinformation among Christians that the Bangsamoro’s creation would lead to the destruction of crosses, the shutdown of churches, a ban on pork consumption, and strict enforcement of the wearing of the “hijab” among women—fears obviously meant to stoke tensions among the populace in the BOL’s covered areas.
The only way to counter misinformation is to disseminate the correct facts, far and wide and quickly. It bears asking, 17 days before the landmark plebiscite: Has enough been done to spread the word about the coming Bangsamoro? Is there a comprehensive, instructive and accessible official information campaign in place that, at this very moment, is helping the public make an informed decision about it?
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