Philippines seeks peace with Muslim self-rule vote

COTABATO, Philippines (AFP) – A decades-long push to halt the violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives in the southern Philippines culminated yesterday with a vote on giving the nation’s Muslim minority greater control over the region.

The poll is the final step in a peace deal with the Catholic-majority country’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been a key force in a separatist insurgency that has raged since the 1970s.

Turnout was heavy in core areas of the proposed Bangasmoro region, located primarily on the southern island of Mindanao, and voters are expected to back it overwhelmingly in most areas.

“I’m tired of the violence because my father is one of the victims,” said 22-year-old Jembrah Abas, adding he was slain by unidentified attackers after advocating for peace.

The election “is on the 20th anniversary of his death. I am so sick of the violence”, she told AFP. Roughly 2.8 million voters were being watched over by a contingent of 20,000 police and soldiers, due to fears rival insurgent groups could use violence to try to disrupt the poll.

The peace process began in the 1990s and does not include hardline factions, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, which are also active in the southern Philippines.

In a frightening close call just as polls opened early yesterday, a grenade was lobbed into a voting centre entrance in the regional hub of Cotabato City, but failed to detonate.