What you need to know about the Bangsamoro plebiscite

Sofia Tomacruz

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

What you need to know about the Bangsamoro plebiscite

Manman Dejeto

Answers to 5 questions to get you up to speed before voting day on January 21

MANILA, Philippines – Six years after the peace deal between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and 6 months after the Bangsamoro law was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte, voters in the Bangsamoro region will cast their “yes” or “no” votes on Monday, January 21.

If majority of residents vote “yes,” they will have – according to the law – a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) with more power, resources, and possibly bigger territory. (READ: 6 scenarios for the Bangsamoro vote)

The creation of BARMM will also signal the start of a process where rebels from the MILF will start running the bureaucracy and end their decades-long struggle for independence.

To understand Monday’s historic vote, here are some things to know about the Bangsamoro plebiscite:  

1. What are people deciding on? 

The plebiscite is a vote to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). 

Residents in key areas in Mindanao will be asked whether or not they want to ratify Republic Act 11054 also known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). This vote will essentially put the law in effect. 

The BOL provides for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, which seeks to replace – and outdo – the ARMM in terms of geographic scope, power, and resources. 

PEACE PROCESS. ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman recalls the long road to peace, thanking both former President Benigno Aquino III and President Rodrigo Duterte for their commitment to the Bangsamoro peace process. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

According to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), more than 2.8 million people – over 150,000 of whom are former MILF combatants – will vote in the plebiscite to create the new region. Some 20,000 cops and soldiers will also be deployed to secure the voting exercise. 

If majority of residents in all areas vote “yes,” the new BARMM would be comprised of the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Cotabato City, 6 towns in Lanao del Norte, and 67 barangays in North Cotabato. 

2. Why are there two plebiscite dates?

Voting for the plebiscite has been scheduled to take place on two dates. The first will be on Monday in the ARMM, Cotabato City, and Isabela City. 

If majority of voters in these areas agree to creating BARMM, a second voting on February 6 will be held in Lanao del Norte (except Iligan City) and 7 towns North Cotabato.

Results from the January 21 vote can be expected no later than Saturday next week, January 26.

3. What are the places to watch out for?

Key areas to watch include Sulu, Cotabato City, and Lanao del Norte. In the run-up to the plebiscite, these places have indicated a “no” vote.

In Sulu, Vice Governor Sakur Tan filed a petition before the Supreme Court in October 2018, questioning the BOL’s constitutionality. Tan argued that votes in ARMM should not be counted as one geographical area. He also questioned the lack of an opt out provision, even if the rest of ARMM wants to be included. 

In Lanao del Norte, the 6 municipalities to be included in the new region will only become part of BARMM if a majority of the entire province also agrees. But the ruling Dimaporo clan has so far showed no sign of willingness to let go of certain parts of its provincial territory. 

These 6 municipalities have faced the same problem in the past. They previously voted to be included in the ARMM during the 2001 plebiscite under Republic Act No. 9054, but their mother units voted against it.

In Cotabato City, the MILF will have to contend with its popular mayor Cynthia Guiani, who has been vocal against the city’s inclusion in the new region.  

Tensions have also grown as Guiani accused an MILF commander of supposedly masterminding the deadly New Year’s Eve blast in Cotabato City. It’s an accusation the MILF denied as they condemned the attack.  

Cotabato is also considered a crucial city for the plebiscite. If the city votes against joining the proposed new region, the BARMM’s regional government will have to move government offices to a new capital.

4. What is the history?

It has taken years to arrive at the chance to create BARMM.

The BOL is the culmination of a peace deal signed between the past administrations and the MILF. It builds upon the gains of previous Moro peace agreements since the 1970s. 


Former president Aquino had wanted the law passed before he stepped down, but a botched police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in 2015 derailed its approval.

Despite this, discussions were again taken up under the administration of President Duterte, the first Mindanao president.

While the plebiscite seeks to create a new and more powerful entity, what’s also at stake is peace in conflict-torn region. Years of war and rebellion have claimed the lives of over 150,000 in Mindanao.  

For this reason, both the government and MILF rallied for the law, saying it is a “formula for peace, development, and progress.”

BANGSAMORO. President Rodrigo Duterte signs the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law. Malacañang file photo

5. What is the impact on Mindanao residents? 

If residents agree with the BOL, the Bangsamoro people will be a step closer to self-rule.

The law paves the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro government, which will be headed by a chief minister and a ceremonial leader called a Wali. 

A regional parliament of 80 members will also be created to pass laws and decide on the region’s budget. Here, representatives from regional parties, districts, and sectors will be allocated a portion of the seats.  

The Bangsamoro government will also enjoy exclusive powers over some areas such as budgeting, economic zones, social services, and a justice system. 

Once the BOL is ratified, the MILF is expected to become the dominant political force in the region since they will automatically occupy a majority of the 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). 

The BTA will be largely in charge of governing the new region until the May 2022 elections, when new officials will be elected. 

According to results of a survey conducted by peace-building organization International Alert Philippines in December 2018, residents who agree with the BOL believe that it will create more government jobs. This is primarily because the BOL mandates the creation of new government departments and offices in the BARMM.

The regional parliament will still work with the national government. The latter will also still retain powers over national matters such as foreign affairs and a national military and police. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.