THE restive southern Filipino region of Mindanao is holding a referendum to vote on giving the nation’s Muslim minority greater control over the region in a bid to end a decades-long effort to end the violence that has claimed 150,000 lives.
The vote involved some 2.8 million voters who were watched by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers amid concerns of attempts by insurgent groups to disrupt the poll.
The poll is the last leg of a peace accord between the staunchly Catholic country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been pivotal to the separatist insurgency that has plagued Mindanao since the 1970s.
The core areas of Bangsamoro region, in the southern tip of Mindanao, is expected to vote overwhelmingly to join it.
An autonomous south run by Muslims is backed by President Rodrigo Duterte, whose home city of Davao is situated in Mindanao.
If the polls go in favour of autonomy, the Bangsamoro region will receive US$950 million in development funds over the next 10 years, and a share of tax revenue generated within its borders.
However, control over the police will still be under the national government, while security matters would closely involve the leadership of the autonomous area.
The results of the polls were expected to be released within four days of the vote, and the approval of the vote would also demobilise a third of MILF’s fighters, which were estimated to be around 30,000.
“I’m tired of the violence because my father is one of the victims,” said 22-year-old Jembrah Abas, adding he was slain by unidentified attackers after advocating for peace.
The election “is on the 20th anniversary of his death. I’m so sick of the violence”, she said.
The process to restore peace in the region stretches back to the 1990s and did not include extremist Islamic factions, especially those linked to the Islamic State militants, which were active in the country.
“Their motive is to sow terror,” Philippine national police chief Oscar Albayalde said, referring to the rival groups.
“They don’t really have any other cause.”
Both the federal government and MILF were aiming to draw more investment to the region where abject poverty and violence has spurred the creation of radical groups.