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NEW AUTONOMOUS REGION IN MINDANAO

Defense chief: Bangsamoro plebiscite a big DND challenge

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday said holding a peaceful plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and helping establish a new autonomous Muslim region after it is approved would be among his department’s biggest challenges this year.

If ratified, the BOL will expand the territory of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to include six towns in Lanao del Norte province, Cotabato City, Isabela City in Basilan province, and 39 barangays in Cotabato province.

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The BOL is a key component of the 2014 final peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after decades of conflict in Mindanao that claimed more than 120,000 lives.

The plebiscite is set for Jan. 21 in all provinces in the ARMM—Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi—and the cities of Isabela, Marawi and Cotabato.

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The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has also set a vote on Feb. 6 in Lanao del Norte, six towns in Cotabato, and other areas that petitioned for inclusion in the future Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Lorenzana said various local governments were divided over whether to ratify or to scrap the BOL.

If the law is ratified, the next challenge would be to implement it and the major components of the 2014 peace agreement, especially the decommissioning of the MILF’s weapons and the integration of its members into the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he said.

BIFF threat

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke away from the MILF, could also pose a threat to the planned plebiscite.

“Although they (BIFF) only have a few men, they are still a problem,” Lorenzana said.

He said the ratification of the BOL would install new leaders from the ranks of the MILF.

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“Hopefully, they can help us police the area so that we can eradicate once and for all the terrorist Dawla Islamiya, BIFF and Maute group,” he said.

‘Chain of violence’

Retired Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., the former AFP chief of staff who now heads the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp), said the BOL was the only way to stop the “generational chain of violence” by allowing the Moro people to effectively run the future Bangsamoro government.

“The BOL is an antidote to terrorism and violent extremism,” Galvez said on Sunday.

Days ahead of the plebiscite, “fake news” had spread on social media and text messages about armed men poised to attack Cotabato City, causing jitters among residents.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo appealed for calm amid the fear gripping the people so close to the New Year’s Eve bombing outside Cotabato City’s South Seas Mall that killed two people and wounded more than 30 others.

“Let not fear reign over us. Let us be calm,” Quevedo said over a Catholic-owned radio network in the region.

He urged people who receive such messages or unfounded information not to forward them and instead report these to the authorities.

MILF optimism

Speaking to the Inquirer on Sunday about his visit to Basilan on Dec. 27, Mohagher Iqbal, who headed the MILF panel in peace talks with the government, said he was optimistic that “more people in Isabela City” would ratify the BOL this time. Isabela voted against joining the ARMM in 2001.

On Saturday, about 8,000 people attended the BOL forum in Sulu, whose governor, Sakur Tan, petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the vote.

MILF chair Murad Ebrahim said he was surprised by the large turnout and called it a “grand success.”

“I did not expect this crowd,” he said. “I am very pleased to see everybody here.”

He said the BOL was not just the work of the MILF but of the Moro National Liberation Front.

“The BOL is not a victory of the MILF (alone) but a victory of the entire Bangsamoro people. This is the fruit of our sacrifices, the result of our collective efforts,” he said. “Inshallah, we will win in Sulu.”

People’s involvement

The Comelec regional director, Rey Sumalipao, urged BOL campaigners to encourage more people to take part in the plebiscite.

“We have very little time left and based on previous uncontested elections, maybe only 50 percent will go to the polls, but a massive campaign will certainly help in increasing it,” he said.

The plebiscite will proceed as scheduled because the Supreme Court did not issue a restraining order that was sought by opponents of the BOL — the Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa) and Governor Tan.

Court spokesperson Midas Marquez said that during the tribunal’s en banc session on Tuesday, the justices decided to order the respondents to comment on the Philconsa petition in 10 days.

The respondents — Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, the Senate and the House represented by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — last week replied to Tan’s petition through Solicitor General Jose Calida.

The two petitions argued that the Constitution must first be amended before a new autonomous region is created.

Calida defended the BOL, saying Congress did not create a new autonomous region but only amended the organic act establishing the ARMM and expanded its territory. —With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade, Jerome Aning, Julie Alipala and Bong S. Sarmiento

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Organic Law, Bangsamoro plebiscitge, BOL, Delfin Lorenzana, Department of National Defense, DND
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