Philippines holds referendum for Muslim autonomy in troubled south

Tuesday, 22 January 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Ebrahim Murad, Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), gestures after casting his vote during the plebiscite on Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) at a voting precinct in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province, Philippines - Reuters

MANILA (Reuters): Minority Muslims in the southern Philippines cast votes on Monday in a long-awaited referendum on autonomy – the culmination of a peace process to end decades of separatist conflict in a region plagued by poverty, banditry and Islamist extremism.

Some 2.8 million people in the volatile Mindanao region are being asked if they back a plan by separatists and the Government to create a self-administered area known as Bangsamoro, or ‘nation of Moros’, referring to the name Spanish colonialists gave to the area’s Muslim inhabitants.

A clear ‘yes’ vote is widely expected, which would grant executive, legislature and fiscal powers to a region where more than 120,000 people died a four-decade conflict that left it one of Asia’s poorest and at risk of infiltration by radical groups.

The central Government would continue to oversee defence, security, foreign and monetary policy, and appoint a transition authority run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the separatist group expected to dominate the new setup after a 2022 election. “We are confident that ‘yes’ will win,” MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim told CNN Philippines on Monday.

“If there is no manipulation, no intimidating, there will be overwhelming approval,” he added.

That would be a much-needed boost for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who remains a hugely popular personality among Filipinos but has so far struggled to make inroads on his ambitious policy agenda.