Moro Muslims Vote In Referendum For A New Region With Greater Autonomy In The Philippines

On Monday, over 2.8 million residents of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voted in a referendum on whether to form a new region called Bangsamoro. This new region would be larger than ARMM and have greater autonomy. According to ABS-CBN, apart from a few isolated incidents, voting day was largely peaceful. Results will be known after some isolated regions have voted on 6 February. The referendum is the latest step of the peace process between the Philippines’ central government and the region’s main separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). As part of the referendum deal, the proposed new region will be granted a development fund of $950 million over 10 years and will have access to a part of federal tax generated in the region. As part of the deal, the MILF will disarm and demobilize its estimated 30,000 fighters. It is hoped that the referendum result will bring an end to decades of violence and disorder in the Southern Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte has put his support behind the yes vote in the referendum. He described the vote as a “peaceful means” to address the historical injustices perpetrated against the country’s Muslim minority. He called on voters to “forget the bitterness of the past and look forward to the future” and told them “my dear Moro brothers and sisters, you have to vote yes”. Dr Malcolm Cook, of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said that the referendum “offers the best chance at finally delivering a political solution to the alienation of the Moro community from the Philippine state” and that it will weaken extremist groups in the region, such as Daesh.

This referendum is a landmark achievement towards achieving peace in a troubled region; those who have supported or worked to initiate it should be widely applauded. It is a promising example of how compromise and negotiation can effectively address conflict to prevent and put an end to destruction and killing. Had this solution been arrived upon earlier, even more devastation might have been avoided. One hopes that any further conflict in the area can be solved or avoided with similarly peaceful democratic means.

The Philippines had a Muslim majority until an imperialist policy of Christianisation under the governance of the United States made them a minority. Increasing marginalization by the central government led to an insurgency in 1969 with the goal of establishing an independent Muslim state. Since then, the conflict has cost an estimated 100,000 – 150,000 lives and 2,000,000 people have been displaced, according to Project Ploughshares.

Hopes are high that the referendum will succeed and that it will be the last major step towards lasting peace and stability in the region. However, there are still challenges ahead. Violence might continue from some fringe groups that are not interested in compromising for a more autonomous region. Hopefully, the democratic legitimacy of the peaceful referendum will be enough to see these groups lose public support. The final challenge will be governance of the new Bangsamoro region. Conflict has devastated the region’s economy and the Philippines suffers from widespread corruption, meaning the $950 million offered for development may not all end up in economic projects, according to Telesur. Competent leadership and positive relations with the rest of the nation will be vital to the region’s future success and stability.


Edmund Pollock