COTABATO, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) en banc has upheld the inclusion of Cotabato City in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a decision that brought relief to the city’s and region’s officials.
The ruling, made on January 10, was based on the January 21, 2019 plebiscite, which saw a majority of 38,682 voting for the city’s inclusion in the predominantly Muslim region, and 24,994 voting against it.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) subsequently declared the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law and the incorporation into the Bangsamoro region of Cotabato, a city where BARMM established its seat of power even before the plebiscite.
The inclusion of Cotabato in the BARMM, however, was not without controversy. Ami Sula, Gaspar Asi, and Hussein Malik Sr. filed a petition before the SC against the Comelec, questioning the conduct of the plebiscite and the city’s inclusion.
They argued that the plebiscite was not conducted in a free, honest, and credible manner, and asserted that the inclusion of Cotabato in the BARMM was not valid.
The SC, after a thorough examination of the evidence presented, ruled that the Comelec had complied with the requirements of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in conducting the plebiscite.
The High Tribunal also said the petitioners had failed to substantiate their allegations of fraud with necessary evidence.
“The mere allegation that the inclusion of Cotabato City in the newly-formed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was not the true intention of the voters of Cotabato City will not persuade this Court to overturn the actions of the Commission on Elections,” read part of the ruling.
It pointed out the Comelec’s constitutional mandate to guarantee the proper exercise of the right of suffrage, and that it would not interfere with the actions of the commission unless there was grave abuse of discretion.
The SC’s decision was greeted with relief by officials of Cotabato City and the Bangsamoro region.
BARMM Interior Minister and spokesman Naguib Sinarimbo said: “We are happy. This affirms that the result was overwhelming. We’ve been saying this before – it was the popular will of the people to join the newly established region of Bangsamoro.”
Sinarimbo was then an active mobilizer of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), the political party of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, who campaigned for Cotabato’s inclusion in the BARMM.
The SC’s decision, he said, ensured that the flow of BARMM projects and programs for Cotabato would continue smoothly.
Cotabato Mayor Bruce Matabalao, who ran for mayor under the UBJP in the 2020 elections and unseated then-mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, also heaved a sigh of relief. Sayadi worked against Cotabato’s inclusion in the region.
“The decision proves that the 2019 plebiscite was indeed free, honest, credible, and peaceful. Together, we overcame countless obstacles and reached countless victories by sticking to the oath of moral governance,” Matabalao said.
He said the legal victory honored “the blood, sweat, and tears of the mujahideen as well as the people who endured a great deal of pain and suffering for the sake of the cause.” – Rappler.com