Leader of Philippines separatist group casts vote in historic referendum

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Voters were watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers. (AN photo)
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Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Al-Haj Ebrahim Murad casts his vote for the first time as he participated in the historic plebiscite for the Bangsamoro Organic Law. (AN photo)
Updated 21 January 2019

Leader of Philippines separatist group casts vote in historic referendum

  • Law seen as solution to decades of separatist conflict in Mindanao
  • Some 2.8 million voters have registered for the referendum

SULTAN KUDARAT, MAGUINDANAO: Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim on Monday cast his vote for the first time in a historic referendum seeking to ratify a law that will give more autonomy to the Philippines’ Muslim minority.

The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is seen as the solution to the decades of separatist conflict in Mindanao, a region plagued by poverty and violent extremism.

Some 2.8 million voters have registered for the referendum.

“This is my first time to vote,” said Murad. “During the height of the war, we never thought that this would happen. But after the progress of the peace process, we see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” 

It took the leader of the MILF, formerly the biggest Muslim group in the country, only a few minutes to case his “yes” vote. 

“I am happy that at least for the first time, I have exercised my right of suffrage,” he later said, adding that his participation in the voting signals the commencement of their transition from a revolutionary into the democratic process.

Like Murad, thousands of MILF fighters, along with their families, also trooped to polling centers yesterday to take part in the voting process, many of them for the first time.

“We are hoping that with this development, we can finally achieve the aspiration of our people for peace, progress and a good life in this part of the country and in the entire country,” Murad said.

Murad said that after the plebiscite, “hopefully the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the transitional government, will be immediately established and we will start to organize our government structure and after the BTA, a regular government in 2022.”

Murad said that once the BOL is implemented, their priorities would be education, medical services, social services,and infrastructure, adding that education was their top priority. 

“For more than 50 years of war, many of our people have not obtained education. We cannot really progress if our people are not educated,” he said.

Murad said that as long as the vote is conducted in a fair manner with no manipulation, intimidation or cheating, they are “determined to accept whatever is the result.”

If the BOL is not ratified, Murad said they would press the government to come to an agreement with the MILF. 

“One lesson we have learned in our struggle of more than 50 years is that although we resort to armed struggle as an option, we always see that the solution to the problem is peace,” he said. 

“The important thing is we will not close our door for peace because war is not a solution. The solution is still peace. So that is why for us, just to defend ourselves, we resort to armed struggle. But we never hesitate to go back to negotiation. And that, I think, contributed to our success in this peace process.”

Meanwhile, tension gripped one of the biggest polling centers in Cotabato City, in which a huge number of men reportedly arrived at the scene.

The military deployed troops and vehicles at the Cotabato City Central Pilot School as heavily armed policemen stood guard outside the school.

Japan PM Abe: No comment on Trump nomination for Nobel Peace Prize

Updated 3 min 12 sec ago

Japan PM Abe: No comment on Trump nomination for Nobel Peace Prize

  • ‘In light of the Nobel committee’s policy of not disclosing recommenders and nominees for 50 years, I decline to comment’
  • The US is Japan’s ally and anchor for national defense and Abe has assiduously cultivated cordial ties with Trump
TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declined Monday to say if he had nominated US President Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, though he also emphasized he did not deny doing so.
Trump’s assertion Friday that Abe had nominated him for the honor and sent him a copy of the letter has raised criticism in Japan.
Questioned in parliament about Trump’s claim that he had done so, Abe said, “In light of the Nobel committee’s policy of not disclosing recommenders and nominees for 50 years, I decline to comment.”
Neither the prime minister nor his spokesman denied Trump’s comment.
“I never said I didn’t” nominate him, Abe said in response to a follow-up question by Yuichiro Tamaki, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party for the People.
Tamaki said in a tweet Monday that given the lack of progress on various issues with North Korea that he was concerned such a nomination would “send the wrong message to North Korea and the rest of international society.”
In responding to Tamaki’s questions in parliament, Abe praised Trump, saying he “has been decisively responding toward resolving North Korea’s nuclear and missile problems, and last year he held historic US-North Korea summit talks.”
Abe added that Trump had also passed on to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Japan’s own concerns about past abductions of Japanese citizens by the North, saying “he and the entire White House also actively cooperated in resolving the issue.”
“I highly praise President Trump’s leadership,” Abe said.
Trump’s claim that Abe had sent him a “beautiful copy” of a letter sent to the Nobel committee could not be immediately verified.
The government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, echoed Abe’s remarks in refusing further comment.
The situation is awkward for Abe at a time when his government is under fire for allegedly manipulating data on wage increases to suggest his economic policies were yielding better results than was actually the case.
“Being Trump’s closest friend among world leaders has not worked out too well for Abe,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “He’s not making Abe look very good.”
The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported Sunday, citing unidentified government sources, that Abe had nominated Trump at the US president’s request.
Former US President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his first year in office, for laying out a US commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Trump complained Friday that Obama was there “for about 15 seconds” before he was awarded the prize.
The deadline each year for nominations is midnight, Jan. 31. According to the website of the Nobel committee, there are 304 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. It said 219 are individuals and 85 are organizations.
Trump’s landmark June 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore was replete with pomp but thin on substance. The president’s comments Friday drew speculation that South Korean President Moon Jae-in might have been the one who nominated the president.
Kim Eui-kyeom, Moon’s spokesman, said he had not, and that he was unlikely to do so.
But Kim said Moon believed Trump “has sufficient qualifications to win the Nobel Peace Prize” for his work toward peace between North and South Korea, which have yet to sign a peace treaty after their 1950-53 war.
The US is Japan’s ally and anchor for national defense and Abe has assiduously cultivated cordial ties with Trump. He was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election.
North Korea has refrained from nuclear and missile tests since early last year. That’s a welcome development for Japan, which sits well within the range of its missiles and has sometimes had test rockets land in its territorial waters.
Abe personally has a large political stake in making progress in resolving the abduction issue with North Korea, an important one for his nationalist political base.
The Nobel committee chooses the recipient of the prize in early October by a majority vote. The prize is awarded on Dec. 10, in Oslo, Norway.