Explainer: What’s behind autonomy vote in the Philippines’ Muslim Mindanao?

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Predominantly Muslim areas of the mainly Catholic Philippines took part in a plebiscite on Monday to decide whether power should be devolved to a locally elected administration in one of Southeast Asia’s most conflict-torn regions.

The referendum is the culmination of a tumultuous peace process between the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and successive governments, aimed at ending conflict that has killed at least 120,000 people since the 1970s.

Some 2.8 million registered voters in two Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao, the country’s southernmost region, have been asked if they support a law to create a self-governing area called Bangsamoro, essentially an upgrade and expansion of an existing autonomous setup largely seen as ineffective.

The Muslim parts of Mindanao are among Southeast Asia’s most unstable and neglected, lacking in infrastructure, jobs and schools. It is hoped that by managing its own affairs, the region will have more power, budget and political will to address the shortfalls, employ more civil servants, and attract more private investment, especially in agriculture and mining.

More than half of the region’s families live in poverty, compared with a national average of 21.6 percent, according to government data. In 2015-2016, the region had the lowest secondary school enrolment and highest dropout rate, with just a third of youth in school compared with 68 percent nationally.

Advocacy groups say historical narratives of neglect and oppression, and a lack of schooling and opportunity, make the region a fertile recruitment ground for militants inspired by Islamic State, like Dawla Islamiya, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf, known for bombings, beheading, kidnappings and piracy.

The result is likely by Friday and an overwhelming “yes” is expected. A smaller plebiscite will be held on Feb. 6 asking some other areas if they wish to join the newly endorsed entity, once created.

The central government will appoint a Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which will govern until elections in 2022 for an 80-seat legislature, which will choose a chief minister. The MILF enjoys broad support and is expected to dominate the process.

Ebrahim Murad, Chairman of Moro Islamic Liberation Front gestures after casting his vote during the plebiscite on BOL at voting precinct in Sultan Kudarat. (Reuters)
Ebrahim Murad, Chairman of Moro Islamic Liberation Front gestures after casting his vote during the plebiscite on BOL at voting precinct in Sultan Kudarat. (Reuters)

Bangsamoro will have its own legislative, executive and fiscal powers, but defense, security and foreign and monetary policy will remain under Manila’s control. A “yes” outcome will see decommissioning of an estimated 40,000 weapons held by MILF guerrillas and civilians.

How would autonomy impact security?

The hope is that autonomy would eventually address the roots of instability, although it is not expected to be a panacea after years of separatist, Islamist and Maoist rebellion, and lawlessness conflict between clans.

Mindanao has been under martial law since an alliance of local and foreign militants inspired by Islamic State attacked Marawi City in a bid to establish a caliphate in May 2017. The military took five months to recapture it, destroying half of it in the process. There are fears survivors of that battle, and possibly fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria, could regroup and strike again.

Deadly bombings last year at a Cotabato City mall, a street festival in Sultan Kudarat, and a prematurely detonated van bomb in Basilan, suggest there are elements who might try to sabotage the political process.

What if the vote is ‘no’?

The status quo would prevail. Although a “no” vote is highly unlikely, it is possible that some areas invited to join the proposed autonomous area might reject the offer.

Among those is Cotabato City, which has a mix of Muslims and Christians and was, according to some polls, not entirely behind the idea of joining. Cotabato would most likely be the new Bangsamoro authority’s seat of government. It might need to seek out another.

Is the region a government priority?

Historically not, but with Rodrigo Duterte, the first Philippine president to come from Mindanao, this could be its best chance for change.

With Duterte’s 2016 election promises still largely unmet, a successful transition to a Bangsamoro authority would be a feather in his cap. Although the peace deal was agreed by his predecessor, it can expect Duterte’s strong support.

He makes no secret of his determination to help Mindanao and often boasts about having turned Davao City from lawlessness into a thriving commercial center. He has encouraged donors to pour aid into Mindanao and despite security lapses that led to the battle for Marawi, it appears Duterte’s popularity has not been dented.

Duterte is on good terms with separatist leaders and though not a Muslim himself, he often talks about his late grandmother being a native of the Bangsamoro area, and even losing distant relatives to militant recruiters.

With only three years left to deliver an ambitious policy agenda, Mindanao could be his best legacy as president.

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