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Children of Moro struggle come full circle in Bangsamoro plebiscite

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Things came full circle for Mariam Mastura-Linsangan as she signed a document that is seen to start a new chapter in the history of Cotabato City.

Linsangan, a member of the Cotabato City plebiscite board of canvassers, signed the final plebiscite return of Cotabato City shortly past 8 pm on Tuesday, January 22,  ending a 13-hour count of the city’s votes in the Bangsamoro plebiscite. 

“Let this be a historical plebiscite return,” said a member of the city board of canvassers, as he passed the document over to the city’s board of canvassers. 

Indeed, Linsangan was aware of the importance of that moment.

In signing the document, she used the same pen her father had used nearly 7 years ago for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), the preliminary peace deal inked between the Philippine government under former president Benigno Aquino III and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in October 2012. 

“My father used this pen to sign the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro when he was a peace negotiator for the MILF and I use this for special occasions…. [so] I said, I might as well use this today,” she told Rappler. 

Linsangan’s father is Datu Michael Mastura, a member of the MILF peace panel. The Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of the peace deal signed between the Philippine government and the MILF. (READ: From peace talks to the new Bangsamoro region)

EARLIER.The pen used to signthe Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro was also used to sign Cotabato City’s plebiscite returns.Mariam Mastura-Linsangan saidshe uses herfather MILF peace panel member, Datu Michael Mastura’s pen for special occasions. #BangsamoroVote @rapplerdotcom — Sofia Tomacruz (@sofiatomacruz) January 23, 2019

Linsangan smiled as the unofficial count showed that Cotabato city had voted to be included in the new Bangsamoro region. 

“I’m really happy because my grandfather Sultan Mastura was originally from PC [Pedro Colina] hill and he was driven out. But Alhamdullilah (Praise be to God), the city is back,” Linsangan said. 

“It is ours now,” she added. 

A new beginning

Tensions rose in Cotabato City as the plebiscite neared, as those in favor and against the city's inclusion in the BARMM sought to sway voters to their side.

As the votes trickled in, resident Arshad Buat said he was thankful. It was enough, he said, for them to participate in  deciding on the Bangsamoro’s future.

Buat shared that his father joined the Moro National Liberation Front, whose quest for autonomy had led to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Years later, he said he joined the MILF to continue the struggle for peace and true independence. 

Ngayon na ang bagong simula. Ang mission dito sa primerong next generation, para sa kabataan. Hindi na nila namumulatan lang yung gulo, ang namumulatan nila ay 'yung tunay na pagbabago, (This is a fresh start. The mission is for the next generation, for the youth. They won’t grow up in war, they’ll grow up amid genuine change),” Buat said. 

WATCH: The last plebiscite return is canvassed in Cotabato city. Final, unofficial results expected shorty. Upon finishing, supporters in the cultural complex shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) #BangsamoroVote @rapplerdotcom — Sofia Tomacruz (@sofiatomacruz) January 22, 2019

As Buat closely watched the vote, he was reminded of how he fought during the Estrada administration's all-out war against the MILF.   

“I’m emotional because of what I went through in the struggle. I grew up in that hardship. Especially the rebels who could not to be with their families. Rain or shine, they were in the jungles where they endured almost everything to achieve the Bangsamoro Law and unity,” he said in Filipino. 

With a new future within reach, Buat said he only hoped those in power would safeguard it. 

Iisa naman yung direksyon natin. Wala tayo inaangat kung hindi kapayapaan (We’re all working towards the same direction. There is nothing we want to achieve but peace),” he said. 

Praise be to Allah

Outside the ARMM cultural complex, residents erupted into cheers of “Allahu Akbar!” as the unofficial count showed the "Yes" vote won in the coveted city.

Among those in the crowd was Nor-ain Kabib Guiamaludi, who had skipped the day’s work.  She said taking time off from work was worth it.

It was the first time, after all, for Cotabato City chose to join a new Bangsamoro region after twice rejecting inclusion in the ARMM in 1989 and in 2001.

“Despite all the sacrifices that took place in the last 50 years, it's overwhelming. We’re happy, so happy, that we’ve achieved what we’ve long fought for – peace in the region, peace in our home,” Guiamaludi said in Filipino. 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at