COTABATO, Philippines: A decades-long push to halt the violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives in the southern Philippines culminated Monday with a vote on giving the nation´s Muslim minority greater control over the region.
The poll is the final step in a peace deal with the Catholic-majority country´s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been a key force in a separatist insurgency that has raged since the 1970s.
Turnout was heavy in core areas of the proposed Bangasmoro region, located primarily on the southern island of Mindanao, and voters are expected to back it overwhelmingly in most areas.
"I´m tired of the violence because my father is one of the victims," said 22-year-old Jembrah Abas, adding he was slain by unidentified attackers after advocating for peace. The election "is on the 20th anniversary of his death. I am so sick of the violence", she told AFP. Roughly 2.8 million voters were being watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, due to fears rival insurgent groups could use violence to try to disrupt the poll.
The peace process began in the 1990s and does not include hardline factions, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, which are also active in the southern Philippines. In a frightening close call just as polls opened early Monday, a grenade was lobbed into a voting centre entrance in the regional hub of Cotabato City, but failed to detonate.
"I was afraid, I was thinking about backing out (of voting)," said a tearful Leticia Mangharal, who was metres away from the explosive. "But this won´t stop me." The government and MILF hope that a new, stable Bangasmoro will attract investment to a region where brutal poverty and perennial bloodshed has fuelled recruitment by radical groups.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who also hails from Mindanao, has long backed the creation of an autonomous region for the island´s Muslims. Under the terms of the law which lays out the region´s powers, Bangsamoro will get $950 million in development funds over the next 10 years, as well as a chunk of the tax revenue generated within its borders. The national government will keep control over the police, though the leadership of the autonomous area will be closely involved in security matters. Final results are expected to be released within four days of the voting, with an approval triggering the demobilisation of a third of MILF´s fighters, which the group says number 30,000.