The promised day: Voters rise early for Bangsamoro plebiscite

COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Even before the ballots and school teachers arrived at Lugay-Lugay Central School in Cotabato City, Wilma and her group were already waiting by its orange gates.

"Dumating kami 5:30 am. Kami ang nauna!" she said proudly as the crowd around her grew, minutes before the precinct was set to open at 7 am on Monday, January 21. (We arrived 5:30 am. We were the first to arrive!)

She is one of around 114,000 people expected to vote in Cotabato City.

Lugay-Lugay Central School is the largest polling precinct, where over 9,700 people are expected to vote.

The Commission on Elections said a total of 2.8 million voters from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and a few other areas registered to participate in Monday's plebiscite. (READ: 6 scenarios for the Bangsamoro vote)

"This day is important because we worked so hard for it for such a long, long time. The fruit of our efforts is here so we need to take it," Wilma said in Filipino.

Amid allegations of vote buying and intimidation by both those opposing and supporting Cotabato City's inclusion in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Wilma said her vote was not bought.

"This was not purchased, not demanded. We worked for this for 48 years," she said.

Wilma's candor is refreshing. Many Cotabato residents have refused interviews about the plebiscite because of the heightened tensions in the city.

Its popular mayor, Cynthia Guiani Sayadi, is openly against the inclusion of Cotabato City in the BARMM, the subject of the plebiscite in the city.

In some villages headed by captains perceived to be allied with Guiani, residents were more fearful about answering our questions about the plebiscite. One resident admitted on condition of anonymity that he is pro-BARMM inclusion but did not want to make his sentiments known because of the atmosphere in the village.

The night before, prayer vigils for a peaceful plebiscite were held in places like Cotabato City and Isabela City. But the relatively quiet night in Cotabato was rocked by two explosions. A hand grenade was thrown at the home of a judge.

Police have yet to determine the motive or capture suspects.

The votes cast on Monday will determine if the BARMM will be created. It's envisioned to be a political entity with more powers, funding, and a system allowing the Bangsamoro people to decide on their development.

For Wilma, the greatest gift of the BARMM is the 3rd one.

"We need to transform and fix the system according to what is right for us," she said.

She is voting not for herself but for her children.

"That's the future of the next generation, even if we ourselves don't benefit," she said.

Voting will end at 3 pm. –

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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