Filipino Muslims vote in referendum for autonomous region

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Soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines stand guard at a security checkpoint in Cotabato City, the Philippines, Jan. 20, 2019 as Filipino Muslims began casting their votes. Xinhua

COTABATO CITY (Xinhua) – Filipino Muslims cast their vote yesterday to ratify the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), a law that will pave the way for wider self-rule to the Muslim minority in the Philippines and is hoped to end the decades-old conflict in southern Philippines.

The Commission on Elections of the Philippines said a total of 2.8 million voters registered for the plebiscite.

Philippine Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Ano said approximately 10,000 soldiers and policemen were deployed to secure the polling centers.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said additional troops have been deployed in potential hotspots or areas where violence are likely to break out.

The plebiscite was held first in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Cotabato City, and Isabela City in Basilan province yesterday. The rest of the core territories will get to vote on Feb. 6.

If the BOL is ratified, it will replace the ARMM and create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), and give it political and economic power, including greater fiscal autonomy, a regional government, parliament and justice system.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who signed the BOL on July 26 last year, has expressed confidence the BOL will pass the upcoming plebiscite.

Mr Duterte believed that the ratification of the BOL would solve the decades-old problem on Muslim rebellion in Mindanao.

On Friday, Mr Duterte urged residents in the future Bangsamoro autonomous region to vote yes to the BOL.

The BOL is the result of decades-long, on-and-off peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government.

The southern island group of Mindanao consists of main-island Mindanao, several small islands off the northern and southern coast, and the Sulu Archipelago in the west, which stretches to Borneo.

Bombings and kidnap-for-ransom targeting Filipinos and foreigners are common, scaring away investors and stunting the economic growth in the region, especially in the central and western parts of Mindanao.

Mr Duterte placed the entire Mindanao under martial rule after terrorists attacked Marawi City in May 2017, triggering five-month intense fighting that ruined the city and claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people.

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