Muslims divided over Mindanao autonomy referendum

Voters go the polls today to cast their ballots on the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Turnout is expected to reach 75 per cent with final results available in four days. Some 20,000 soldiers and police officers are ensuring security. For PIME Missionary, in many Muslim-majority areas, many are against the proposal.

Zamboanga (AsiaNews) – About 2.8 million voters will cast their ballots today in the southern island of Mindanao in the historic referendum on Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

If approved, the law will create an autonomous region – the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) – in areas inhabited by some four million peple, mostly Muslim Bangsamoro (Moro people).

Voting will take place in some core areas today with a second round in neighbouring provinces and towns.

The Election Commission expects a 75 per cent voter turnout.  Results should be made public four days from now.

Some 20,000 police and soldiers have been deployed amid fears rebel groups might carry out violent actions.

The Bangsamoro Organic Law is based on a 2014 peace agreement signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a Maguindanao-based group.

Under the terms of the law, which lays out the region's powers, Bangsamoro will get US$ 950 million in development funds over the next 10 years, as well as chunk of local tax revenues.

The law has however generated discontent among other Islamic ethnic groups, like the Tausūg, who prefer federalism, and the Maranao.

"Despite the optimism shown by MILF leaders, it is likely that BOL will not pass," said Fr Stefano Mosca, missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Zamboanga del Sur, speaking to AsiaNews.

"The government only dealt with them, effectively excluding other Muslim groups that now oppose the law. “According to them, the BOL favours only the MILF, which will receive 50 million pesos (US$ 950,000) from Manila over the next five years, as compensation for the injustices suffered by the Muslim population.”

The referendum is not being held in the Mindanao provinces where PIME is present (Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay). Here Muslims are numerous but a minority.

"Among the Christians in our areas, many do not even know about the referendum,” the missionary said. “Others accuse Muslims of being 'traitors' and do not trust them. At present, it is not possible to predict what would happen if the No won.”

"The widespread fear is that the MILF would resume violent actions, attacks and abductions of foreigners. Our bishop has asked me and my confrère here in Lakewood to accept an escort.”

"Starting tomorrow, a police officer will follow our movements and we will take some precautions. But we are not worried, this happens at election time. The local population is very cooperative, always ready to report people and suspicious movements to the authorities."