The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines largest Islamic armed group, is poised to reap the fruits of its civil war, a four decade-long conflict that claimed 120,000 lives and badly stunted development on the southern island of Mindanao.

On January 21, in a highly anticipated plebiscite, tens of thousands of voters flocked to different polling centers in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to decide the fate of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the main anchor of the MILF’s peace deal with the government.

The BOL, if passed, will create a new political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), replacing the 28-year-old ARMM, the outgrowth of a previous peace deal with a separate Muslim rebel group in the area.

Preliminary Commission on Elections (Comelec) results showed late Thursday (January 24) that the plebiscite passed overwhelmingly in four of the five provinces included in the ARMM. The plebiscite’s area also covers the major cities of Cotabato and Isabela.

Comelec is expected to declare the official results by Friday or early next week.

Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s first and only president to hail from Mindanao, signed the BOL last July and later pushed for its ratification to bring “just and lasting peace and development” in the country’s violence-wracked main southern island.

Al-Hajj Murad, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman of MILF, gesture with the peace sign during a ceremony for Bangsamoro Organic Law draft being submitted to the president at the Malacanang Palace. Manila, July 17, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
MILF chairman Al-Hajj Murad (L), President Rodrigo Duterte and MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar at a peace deal signing ceremony, Malacanang Palace, Manila, July 17, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The plebiscite was held peacefully, due in large part to the deployment of at least 20,000 troops to guard and secure polling centers. Islamic State-aligned groups had threatened to disrupt the vote, but no major incidents were reported.

There are still certain legal hurdles. Early indications show that the “no” vote prevailed in southernmost Sulu province, whose governor, Abdusakur Tan II, challenged the constitutionality of the BOL and abolishing the ARMM at the Supreme Court.

Isabela City, a predominantly Christian locality, also appears to have voted down the plebiscite.

The Philippine Constitutional Association, composed of constitutional and legal experts, filed a separate petition before the high tribunal questioning the legality of the BOL. The Supreme Court has yet to hand down a decision on the complaint.

Cotabato City, the region’s strategically placed economic center which earlier twice rejected inclusion in the ARMM, has voted to join the new Bangsamoro region.

Cotabato City mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, an ethnic Moro, campaigned against the city’s inclusion on the belief the city can thrive independently, while the MILF pushed for its inclusion due to its strategic and emotional importance to the Moro struggle. Many MILF leaders live in or near the city.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces raise their fists during a show of force inside the camp in Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines March 27, 2014. The Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), on Thursday signed a final peace pact, ending about 45 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people in the country's south. REUTERS/Stringer (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR3ITSE
MILF forces at Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, March 27, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Pre-plebiscite security was tight in the city, where a powerful bomb exploded on New Year’s Eve outside a mall that killed two and wounded over 30 others.

Hours before the polling centers opened, two grenade grenades exploded in Cotabato City, with some mauling incidents outside voting precincts also recorded. Nobody took immediate responsibility for the blasts.

MILF chieftain Al Haj Murad Ebrahim believes that a bright new future is dawning in the nation’s south, the country’s perennially poorest region, although he admitted that the MILF would face a challenge due to its lack of experience in public governance.

“We are hoping that with this development, finally we can achieve the aspiration of our people for peace … and good life in this part of the country and in the entire country,” he told reporters after he cast his vote on Monday.

The MILF will also be challenged by the BOL’s requirement that its fighters hand over their weapons and return to mainstream society after decades of warfare.

Once the BOL is ratified, Murad said the MILF would need to decommission some 12,000 weapons after certain milestones are achieved. The MILF boats a 40,000-strong army that operates out of highly fortified and sprawling camps across the region.

The abandoned firearms will be turned over to an Independent Decommissioning Body, which includes representatives from foreign governments supportive of the Bangsamoro peace process.

map-Philippines-Terror Groups-Abu Sayyaf-Maute Group-Islamic State-May 26-2017

Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the MILF’s “greatest challenge” will be to make the transition from fighting to governing.

“They are used to running a rebellion. They need to prove that they can run a government that is better than the previous one,” he told Asia Times.

Banlaoi believes that the creation of the new Bangsamoro entity and its autonomy-granting provisions will not necessarily be enough to upend Islamic State-inspired groups fighting for the creation of a caliphate in the region.

Those groups include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway faction of the MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf Group, renowned for its kidnapping-for-ransom operations.

Their ultimate defeat, Banlaoi says, will depend on how the Bangsamoro government performs in addressing the underlying issues and grievances that have for decades fueled various Muslim rebellions.

The MILF is now working with the government to eradicate pro-Islamic State groups, to prevent them from mounting violence that could undermine the new Bangsamoro region’s peace and security.

The MILF has significant foreign support, including from the United States, European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia, all of which have expressed support for the new Bangsamoro region’s creation.

If the BOL is ratified, an 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) will be appointed by Duterte to run the BARMM through a parliamentary government until a first set of local officials are elected in 2022.

The MILF’s central committee has endorsed Murad to lead the transition government. In preparation for the first election in 2022, the MILF has already formed a political party known as the United Bangsamoro Justice Party.

A woman shows her inked thumb at a voting precinct in Cotabato on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 21, 2019/ Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Under the BOL, the Bangsamoro parliament can enact laws on personal, family and property matters in adherence with sharia law. The law also gives the BARMM an annual block grant equal to 5% of net national internal tax collection from the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs.

The annual grant, which was earlier estimated to be about 60 billion pesos (US$1.13 billion), will be automatically appropriated as per the General Appropriations Act to the new Bangsamoro government.

At least 5 billion pesos ($95 million) per year for ten years, or 50 billion pesos ($947.7 million) in total, will also be given by the national government to the BARMM, as a special fund for rehabilitation and development in line with provisions in the peace accord.

The Bangsamoro government will also receive the lion’s share, or 75%, of taxes collected within the BARMM, with the rest going to the central government.

Government revenues generated from the exploration, development and utilization of all natural resources in the BARMM will go to the Bangsamoro government’s coffers and be shared with local governments within its territory.

For uranium and fossil fuels, including petroleum, natural gas and coal, revenues will be co-managed and shared equally between the national and Bangsamoro government, as per the BOL.

While many hope that Mindanao is now on the cusp of peace after decades of war, the MILF will need to prove quickly it can administer as well as it could fight if the region is truly to overcome the poverty and underdevelopment caused by decades of conflict.