As Bangsamoro vote nears, tensions rise in Cotabato City

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – A red truck bearing men in green shirts cuts through the traffic in busy Sinsuat Avenue in Cotabato City. One of them holds out a megaphone like he would a conquering sword, blasting out praises for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

Minutes later, it is back in the same spot, completing its rounds for the afternoon.

There are more trucks like this in the city. Some carry women, wearing multicolored hijabs and green blouses. It's the same green as the pro-BOL tarpaulins declaring "YES for inclusion of Cotabato City" along the main thoroughfare. 

Scenes like this have become common in Cotabato City days before the first Bangsamoro plebiscite. They have not been to the liking of some residents.

"They don't follow the rules. Their motorcade blocks the lanes and cause traffic. They behave arrogantly," said a security guard of an educational institution after watching one of the trucks pass by.

Cotabato City-based professor Benedict Bacani said the security guard's sentiments are common.

"We've observed that people are disturbed by this. They interpret this as a show of force by the MILF and the proponents of 'yes,'" Bacani told Rappler.

Gov't troops watch over as BOL supporters are loaded into trucks after pro-BOL rally. One supporter says he comes from Tamuntaka, on border of Cotabato City. #BangsamoroVote pic.twitter.com/gjIwT4A2wa — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) January 19, 2019

The MILF, or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is the Muslim rebel group that will come into power when the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is created. The ratification of the BOL will automatically create this new political entity.

"Those proponents of the 'no,' they say that it's like they (MILF members) are not in power yet and now you look at how they conduct themseves, coming here and disrupting traffic and all that. 'So can you imagine if they are already in power?' And that resonates with a lot of people here, the supporters of the mayor," he added.

Most of the ones still doing the campaigning are not even from Cotabato City, the security guard complained. They supposedly come from nearby Maguindanao towns, where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is influential, or from villages led by MILF-allied barangay captains. 

Grievances like this underline the tension now brewing in Cotabato City in recent days.  

On Tamuntaka Bridge, which links Cotabato City to Maguindanao, hangs both a pro-BOL banner and anti-BOL banner, side by side. In an intersection, a poster screams "No to fake promises!!! Reject BOL" beside a tarpaulin bearing MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim's face. 

'Harassment' of BOL supporters 

The naysayers of BARMM inclusion have also been aggressive. On Friday, January 18, a large pro-BOL poster displayed by the entrance to the ARMM regional government compound was burned.

That morning, before President Rodrigo Duterte's arrival at the compound to attend a pro-BOL assembly, a "no to BOL" tarpaulin was found hanging across the compound's gate. 

Government staff quickly took down the tarpaulin but the incident showed how tightly strung the city is.  

Some incidents of harassment of BOL supporters were even fatal. In December 2018, two MILF fighters were shot while putting up pro-BOL posters, said Naguib Sinarimbo, deputy secretary general of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, political party of the MILF.

Samir Gandawali was shot and injured on December 8, 2018. Bayan Angkad Blah was gunned down a few days later, on December 14, 2018. Police are yet to say who shot the two men, but BOL supporters are convinced the BARMM inclusion naysayers are involved.

"Nu'ng December 10 na malaking rally, may mga kasama sila na dumating from malalayong areas. Pagdating nila sa city plaza, tinaboy sila. Literally tinaboy, as in pinaalis. So madaming panggigipit na hindi naman dapat," said Sinarimbo.

(Last December 10, there was a big rally and they brought in people from faraway areas. When they got to the city plaza, they were told to leave. So there was a lot of harassment that should not have happened.)

Sinarimbo rose early on Sunday morning, January 20, to hold a meeting of pro-BOL supporters. They aim to protect voters, especially MILF combatants who will vote for the first time, from harassment and intimidation.

PREPS FOR PLEBISCITE. United Bangsamoro Justice Party deputy secretary general Naguib Sinarimbo holds a meeting with Bangsamoro Organic Law supporters who will be volunteering to secure voters during the plebiscite on January 21, 2019. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

PREPS FOR PLEBISCITE. United Bangsamoro Justice Party deputy secretary general Naguib Sinarimbo holds a meeting with Bangsamoro Organic Law supporters who will be volunteering to secure voters during the plebiscite on January 21, 2019.

Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

Describing Cotabato City in recent days as "toxic," Sinarimbo called for civility.

"Contested 'yung Cotabato City but puwede naman maging very, very civil 'yung exercise ng boto. Kayang itawid 'yan nang mas maayos na plebisito," he said. (Cotabato City is contested but the voting exercise should be very, very civil. We should be able to ensure an orderly plebiscite.)

Residents worry what the plebiscite results will bring. Fear hangs in the air that small confrontations between the pros and antis on Monday will flare into something more dangerous.

"Whatever the results would be in Cotabato City will be contested anyway and would be controversial because if 'no' wins here, MILF will say the mayor cheated, or if 'yes' wins, the mayor will say people were intimidated and they were not able to vote. So whatever the outcome is, Cotabato is a divided city," said Bacani. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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