Foreign observers say Bangsamoro plebiscite peaceful, organized

Pia Ranada
Foreign observers say Bangsamoro plebiscite peaceful, organized
But Cotabato City is singled out for the tense dynamics between groups taking opposite sides in the plebiscite

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Two foreign observers described the Bangsamoro plebiscite as generally “peaceful” and organized, with one lauding the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for doing an “excellent job.”

Rappler spoke with two foreign observers on the night of the plebiscite on Monday, January 21, on their initial assessments of the poll.

They requested not to be identified for this story.

Foreign observers are typically members of international groups or foreign countries invited by the Comelec and local watchdogs to visit polling precincts and see for themselves how the poll is conducted.

They often craft internal reports but don’t release details to media.

Amid this overall favorable initial assessment, a foreign observer said tensions in Cotabato City made it stand out like a sore thumb.

“Some (Cotabato polling precincts) were still well-organized but you could sense things were a little bit more tense,” they said. 

The observer cited larger crowds on the street, and how soldiers and police had to shut gates of voting centers to “channel the people” and calm down tense situations. 

They compared this to areas in Parang and Sultan Kudarat in adjacent Maguindanao where the precincts were “open” and families, children, and the aged could hang about.

While they saw the same level of security in Cotabato precincts as with precincts in other areas (one or two policemen or soldiers standing guard), there was heightened security in the city’s streets. 

They also observed more “trouble” between the two opposing groups – those calling for Cotabato City’s inclusion in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and those against it.

What of harassment reports?

Meanwhile, the observer said they did not see any harassment or intimidation.

The Comelec had earlier announced reports that teachers serving as Board of Election Inspectors were “intimidated” into not showing up  at their polling precincts. “Threatening” text messages had supposedly been sent to them the previous night, said ARMM Comelec chief Rey Sumalipao.

The other foreign observer said they had also received reports about delayed opening of precincts and threats made to teachers but they found it “difficult to understand what happened.”

There had also been some confrontations in some polling precincts but they had been contained.

Good voter turn-out

Despite the polarization in Cotabato City, one foreign observer said they think the results of the plebiscite can be considered credible.

Contributing to this conclusion was the observation that the plebiscite was also “well-attended.”

“In most places we saw, they had, by about lunch time, anywhere between 50 to 70% of the people who were on their list, they had already come in and voted,” they said.

School principals and teachers running the precincts had also told the observers that they felt they had all the support and equipment they needed for their task.

“Well-organized. Good cooperation between the local committees, Comelec, and from the security forces,” said the observer.

However, 6th Infantry Division Commander Major General Cirilito Sobejana did flag the lack of coordination between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s armed wing, Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), and the military and police.

Some 6,000 BIAF members had apparently been inside the city on Monday, causing government forces to worry that voters will get intimidated and decide not to vote.

But the BIAF members were unarmed, did not wear their uniforms, and carried identification cards, which minimized the chances of tensions. (WATCH: Without guns, Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces prepare to help protect BOL vote–

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at