LANAO DEL NORTE, Philippines – Residents of areas in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato will have their chance to decide whether or not they want to join a new and powerful Muslim region on Wednesday, February 6.
It is the final hurdle to seeing the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which seeks to replace – and outdo – the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Residents in Lanao del Norte, except Iligan City, and 7 towns in North Cotabato will be asked if they agree to having key areas of their provinces included in the new Bangsamoro region.
1. It will ensure a larger BARMM with greater territory.
If majority of residents in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato vote in favor of the BARMM, 6 Lanao del Norte towns and 67 North Cotabato barangays would be added to the new Bangsamoro region's territory.
Along with Cotabato City's "yes" vote, this would ensure that the BARMM will cover more areas than the ARMM.
For University of the Philippines Islamic Studies professor Julkipli Wadi, this is important because the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would be heading a truly new autonomous region. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: MILF chief Murad on hopes, challenges for the Bangsamoro vote)
"If they will not be able to get these areas, it would mean it is only in Cotabato that the MILF had got, which would not really speak of the MILF as heading a new territory," Wadi said.
However, getting these territories to join the BARMM will not be easy.
The vote faces the difficult challenge of winning a double majority. This means residents in both the areas seeking inclusion and their mother units need to vote "yes" to their being a part of the BARMM.
If majority of residents in either the concerned municipalities or the province vote no, the area will not be part of the Bangsamoro region.
Institute for Autonomy and Governance executive director Ben Bacani said Wednesday's vote in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato also presents a second chance for voters to voice their sentiments on joining a new autonomous region. These areas previously voted to be included in the ARMM during the 2001 plebiscite under Republic Act No. 9054, but their mother units rejected it.
"They said yes in the last plebiscite. So it is significant in the sense that there is now an opportunity to recognize, if this is self-determination, their voice," Bacani said.
2. The MILF is up against the ruling and powerful Dimaporo clan.
While the MILF has a strong presence in the 6 Lanao del Norte municipalities vying for inclusion – Tagoloan, Balo-i, Pantar, Munai, Nunungan, and Tangcal – it is up against the powerful Dimaporo clan which has ruled the province for over 4 decades.
In a video message posted on Facebook last Thursday, January 31, controversial MILF commander Abdullah Macapaar, known as Commander Bravo, urged residents to vote "yes" for peace. The alternative, he said, would be a "violation of our right to live in peace."
On the eve of the plebiscite, Lanao del Norte 2nd District Representative Abdullah Dimaporo told Rappler that he expects a landslide win for the "no" vote in the province.
Dimaporo is banking on the majority Christian population to troop to the polls. He's convinced they will vote in favor of exclusion as they had delivered votes in support of his family for years.
He likewise downplayed the majority "yes" vote seen among the youth who make up 45% of voters in Lanao del Norte, saying they would still be outnumbered by the Christian vote.
Dimaporo added that residents are also not fully convinced by the BOL's promise of peace, as the province had been attacked by the MILF in 2000, 2003, and 2008.
Unlike in Cotabato City where the presence of MILF members was tolerated, Lanao del Norte residents openly showed opposition upon seeing MILF observers who traveled to the province to guard the vote. (WATCH: Groups engage in standoff on eve of BOL plebiscite in Lanao del Norte)
Despite the tension in the province, both the MILF and the Dimaporos said they would respect the outcome of the vote.
"It would be to the best interest of everybody that the democratic process be respected and the results be respected," Bacani said. (READ: More than 2,000 soldiers, cops to secure Bangsamoro plebiscite in Lanao del Norte)
3. Lanao del Norte hosts MILF camps key to the decommissioning process.
The second part of the Bangsamoro plebiscite is also crucial because the 6 Lanao del Norte towns eyed for inclusion in the BARMM are where camps of the MILF are located.
Bacani said seeing their inclusion in the Bangsamoro region would also mean seeing the smoother transition of MILF members from rebels to civilians.
"If these [areas] get into the whole BARMM, it's part of the whole mainstreaming also of the MILF. Especially in Lanao, kung saan very active si Commander Bravo (where Commander Bravo is very active)," Bacani said.