Crunch vote in troubled southern Philippines could bring peace, say residents

Security forces check identification at a checkpoint in Cotabato on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 20, 2019, a day before a vote on giving the nation's Muslim minority greater control over the region. (AFP / Noel Celis)
Updated 21 January 2019
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Crunch vote in troubled southern Philippines could bring peace, say residents

  • Decades of insurgency could end on Mindanao island
  • People urged to forget ‘bitterness of the past’

COTABATO, Philippiness: Residents on a troubled island in the southern Philippines have told Arab News that peace is within reach, as they prepare for a crucial vote taking place on Monday.

They said they hoped the poll would end decades of conflict on Mindanao and usher in development and progress.

More than 120,000 people have been killed on the island and 2 million have been displaced, as armed groups battle government forces to win independence for the Muslim minority living there.

Nearly 3 million people in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARRM) are expected to vote on ratifying a law that will create a bigger region called Bangsamoro, which will have its own domestic legislation, more funding and get to keep a greater share of locally generated taxes.

A second round of voting will be held on Feb. 6.

Jim Lan lives in Sulu province, a known stronghold of the Daesh-inspired Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

He used to be in a group that was fighting for an autonomous Muslim state, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
 
“I will vote yes to the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL),” Lan told Arab News. "This law, it’s like being semi-independent. It will bring peace and order and generate projects for the people of Mindanao which is what the Tausugs (an ethnic group of the Philippines) have been praying for. Once development will set in, it will help eliminate the ASG and other such groups. Because that's what they also want for their family, so their children can go to school.”

Last month Congress backed President Rodrigo Duterte’s bid to extend martial law on Mindanao until Dec. 31, 2019, after he said terrorism was still a problem on the island. He first imposed martial law there in May 2017, after Daesh-inspired fighters seized the city of Marawi.

Duterte flew to Cotabato City on Friday, where he joined thousands of people to make a final pitch for the ratification of the BOL.

“The fact we have reached this point after so many years of negotiations and interruptions, we are here,” the president said, referring to the decades-long peace process between the government and the Moro Independence Liberation Front), which wants an autonomous region for the Moro people.

“Let us forget the bitterness of the past and look forward to the future, which means ladies and gentlemen... vote yes,” he said, adding: “Your approval of this law will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than half a century of armed struggle in the region, it will also serve as a testament to your determination to bring peace.”

Yusop Jikiri, chair of the MNLF, said the BOL would have a significant impact on current and future generations.

“Our president is seriously concerned for the ratification of the new autonomy law for Bangsamoro because it is the legacy of his administration to put an end to the historical injustices committed against the Bangsamoro people,” Jikiri told Arab News, adding that while the law was not perfect it was “the only available solution to the aspirations of our people.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana led a delegation of high-ranking government and military officials to Sulu to stress the importance of ratifying the BOL.

“This is our chance to make our present situation better. We shall pass on a more prosperous Mindanao to the next generation,” he told more than 10,000 people who had assembled at the gymnasium of Mindanao State University. “What is happening right now is history in the making.”

Mindanao resident Hussein Dalindin was optimistic about the future, saying there would be greater respect for Islam and recognition of people’s demands for independence because of the BOL.

He also used to be part of a group fighting for independence.

When asked what would happen if the BOL was not implemented, he told Arab News: “I am willing to go back (to war) and continue our struggle.”


Gangsters attack train passengers in Hong Kong after night of violent protests

Updated 43 min 50 sec ago
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Gangsters attack train passengers in Hong Kong after night of violent protests

  • Groups of men in white were seen by eye-witnesses with poles and bamboo staves at a nearby village
  • The Hospital Authority said 45 people were injured in the Yuen Long attack
HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party is investigating attacks by suspected triad gangsters on train passengers on Sunday, after a night of violence opened new fronts in the political crisis now deepening across the city.
Screams rang out when men, clad in white t-shirts and some armed with poles, flooded into the rural Yuen Long station and stormed a train, attacking passengers, according to footage taken by commuters and Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting.
Some passengers had been at an anti-government march and the attack came after several thousand activists surrounded China’s representative office in the city, later clashing with police.
Lam, who was injured in the attack, said he was angry about a slow police response after he alerted them to the trouble, government-funded broadcaster RTHK reported.
Lam said it took police more than an hour to arrive after he alerted them and they had failed to protect the public, allowing the triads to run rampant. The party is now investigating.
“Is Hong Kong now allowing triads to do what they want, beating up people on the street with weapons?,” he asked reporters.
Police said early on Monday they had not made any arrests at the station or during a follow-up search of a nearby village but were still investigating.
Yau Nai-keung, Yuen Long assistant district police commander, told reporters that an initial police patrol had to wait for more reinforcements given a situation involving more than 100 people.
Groups of men in white were seen by eye-witnesses with poles and bamboo staves at a nearby village but Yau said police saw no weapons when they arrived.
“We can’t say you have a problem because you are dressed in white and we have to arrest you. We will treat them fairly no matter which camp they are in,” Yau said. Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent protests for more than two months in its most serious crisis since Britain handed the Asian financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protesters are demanding the full withdrawal of a bill to allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, fearing it would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
They are also demanding independent inquiries into the use of police force against protesters.
On Sunday police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists on the edge of Hong Kong’s glittering financial district after they had fled China’s Liaison Office.
The Chinese government has condemned the action, which saw signs and a state symbol daubed with graffiti.
The unrest in Hong Kong marks the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
The Hospital Authority said 45 people were injured in the Yuen Long attack, with one in a critical condition. Some 13 people were injured after the clashes on Hong Kong island, one seriously, the authority said.
Some police had been injured in the clashes after protesters hurled bricks, smoke grenades and petrol bombs, said a police statement.