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.