Philippines: Postponement of Polls in Muslim-Majority South Passes Senate Hurdle

Froilan Gallardo
Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
2021-09-07
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Philippines: Postponement of Polls in Muslim-Majority South Passes Senate Hurdle With soldiers providing security nearby, workers pour cement along Quezon Avenue in Marawi City, southern Philippines, Oct. 17, 2020.
[Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]

The Philippines Senate has approved the postponement of parliamentary elections in the autonomous Muslim region in the country’s south, currently governed by former separatist rebels, from 2022 to 2025, leaders of the regional bloc said Tuesday. 

Top officials of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) welcomed passage of Senate Bill No. 2214, saying the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) had not had enough time to complete foundational work amid the pandemic.

Ahod Balawag Ebrahim, the region’s chief minister, said passage of the proposed law would give ample time for the former separatist group to “finish the job and ensure that the next regional officials can work under a system that befits the realities of the Bangsamoro.”

“The extension for three more years gives us a better chance for healing, for rebuilding, and for setting the future of the Bangsamoro,” said Ebrahim, the leader of the former Muslim separatist rebels Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in a statement.

The Senate had passed the deferral bill on its third and final reading on Monday. The vote allowing BARMM residents to elect their own officials was supposed to take place alongside general elections in May 2022.

The House of Representatives now has to pass its version of the bill. Ebrahim expressed confidence it would go through in the Lower House, which is filled with allies of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte had earlier promised the former rebel leader that he would sign the legislation once it passed both houses and the two versions were reconciled.  

Naguib Sinarimbo, BARMM’s minister of the interior and local government, called the bills approval “a historic move.” He said the transition authority could now iron out major issues like the management of mineral and natural resources.

“Like, for example, the Lake Lanao - under the CAB, we are given a 50-50 percent share. The BTA can now institutionalize this,” Sinarimbo said, referring to equal sharing of proceeds from natural wealth exploration.

The rebels signed a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the government in 2014 after 17 years of conflict and negotiations in Mindanao. 

The deal ended the MILFs rebellion, which began in the 1970s, to create a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. The group settled for expanded autonomy and agreed to turn in their weapons.

Ebrahim, also known by his nom de guerre, Murad Ebrahim, became the head of the transitional authority. He had been pushing to postpone elections to a later date, saying that many planned projects had been stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ebrahim has also said he needed more time to implement socio-economic programs while defeating more radical militant groups. In the past, he had warned of violence from other Muslim armed groups dissatisfied with the peace deal or progress made since it was signed.

If enacted into law, the bill will authorize the next president to appoint the 80 members of the BTA, who are responsible for the autonomous region. The term of current members will end on June 30, 2022.

The Philippines is set to choose the countrys next leader in May, as Duterte completes his six-year term in office.

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Workers walk through a construction site in Marawi City on Oct. 17, 2020, four years after President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city “liberated from the terrorist influence.” [Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]

Not all rebels are rooting for an extension of the transitional government

At a small gathering in Marawi City last week, members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the MILF, aired their misgivings on the peace process and life under the BARMM.

“Those who have benefited now are not genuine fighters of the MILF. They are technocrats, who have not dirtied their hands for the revolution,” said a 55-year-old BIAF fighter, who goes by nom-de-guerre Tano. 

Aisha, a 42-year-old veteran, said: “I patiently brewed coffee for the fighters, so they have warm stomachs during the fighting. But now I am told I have no job under the BARMM.” 

There are worries that such frustrations may spill over into violence, and concerns that Islamic State-linked fighters pushed out of Marawi in 2017 could take advantage of the situation to lure former MILF fighters to join their ranks, analysts have said.

That year, much of Marawi, the Philippines’ only predominantly Muslim city, was destroyed in the battle between government forces and Islamic State militants. The fighting lasted for five months and left 1,200 militants, government forces, and civilians dead.

Ariel Hernandez, a co-chair of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Joint Normalization Division, said authorities were looking at the issue with growing concern.

“This is a problem that should be addressed by the MILF leadership. We cannot intrude on this problem; otherwise, the MILF would accuse us of interfering,” Hernandez said.

Sinarimbo said the normalization process had provided an economic package to assist fighters in returning to everyday lives

“The skill sets and expertise needed are different from those of the fighters carrying rifles,” he said. “The MILF leaders have continuous meetings with the fighters to explain this, but these issues continue to crop up,” he said. 

Abel Moya, director of Pakigdait, a non-government organization in the south involved in peacebuilding, said his group had conducted meetings with former MILF fighters in Lanao del Sur province, near Marawi.

The group had also tried to explain to the fighters that “not all of them will be entitled to the spoils of the peace dividend,” Moya said.

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