COTABATO -- A decades-long push to halt the violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives in the southern Philippines culminates 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.
Core areas of the proposed Bangasmoro region, located on the southern island of Mindanao, are expected to vote overwhelmingly to join it.
“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’m so sick of the violence”, she told AFP.
Roughly 2.8 million voters will be watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, amid 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 Islamist factions, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, which are also active in the southern Philippines.
“Their motive is to sow terror,” Philippine national police chief Oscar Albayalde said, referring to the rival groups. “They don’t really have any other cause.”
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.