Historic vote to determine autonomy in the southern Philippines could help end decades of conflict

Photo: Facebook screengrab/ VOTE YES TAYO SA B.O.L - Bangsamoro Organic Law

Nearly three million Filipino voters in the southern part of the Philippines are casting their votes on the Bangsamoro Organic Law on Monday, January 21, regarding a proposal to give the region a higher degree of autonomy. The government hopes that the outcome will lead to peace in a region that has seen decades of violence.

Residents of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao will be going to the polls to vote on a law that would create Bangasmoro, an expanded region in the area that would allow for greater funding, a bigger share of revenues and complete control over the area’s resources.

However, there is opposition to the proposal from various local politicians, who are reluctant to hand over control to a brand-new political entity.

The proposal comes after twenty years of discussions whose goal was to end 40 years of an insurgency that saw the loss of thousands of lives and curtailed development in a region replete with mineral deposits worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The South China Morning Post writes that according to Ishak Mastura, the head of the investment board in the region, “The approval of this law will signal peace, and hopefully, the Bangsamoro can hitch on the coming Mindanao boom in investments.”

After the vote for autonomy, there is hope that at least 2 billion pesos (S$ 51.5 million) in investments will flow into the region.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, pushed for the creation of the new region, as he had promised to help usher in wealth as well as peace when he ran for the presidency in 2016.

On Friday, January 19, the President promised to change the economic provisions stated in the constitution after the vote had passed.

He said, “Your approval of this law will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than half a century of armed struggle in the region. It will also serve as a testament to your determination to bring genuine peace and development in Muslim Mindanao.”

Matsura claims that the high cost of power, as well as poor infrastructure, would be a challenge for would-be investors in the region, even if autonomy should be granted.

However, encouraging signs have been observed of late. In 2017, the region’s economy grew by 7.3 percent, higher than the national average of 6.3 percent. The mineral deposits in the region have been valued at US$300 billion (S$ 408 billion), which amounts to around two-fifths of the total mineral reserves of the Philippines.

A win for the ‘yes’ votes for the proposal will see the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). By 2022, elections for chief minister and parliament will be held in the area. In the interim, President Duterte will appoint a transition committee.

When the Bangsamoro Organic Law is passed, this will bring about the eventual laying down of arms of around thirty thousand forces who belong to the Philippines’ biggest organized armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). These troops will exchange their arms for a program that would help them transition to civilian living.

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