Fear and the fight for Cotabato City’s 113,751 votes: empty streets, closed shops

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/ 21 January) — Outside the Cotabato City Central Pilot School along Sinsuat Avenue on Monday, the roll-up doors of stalls on both sides of the street, were padlocked, an unusual sight for an election day.

Monday was a special non-working holiday to allow residents of the Autonomous Region in Mindanao (ARMM) and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela to “actively and fully participate in the plebiscite and exercise their right to vote” but the streets were empty as most residents stayed home after voting, if they were able to vote at all, in this city gripped by fear.

An eatery in front of the Cotabato City Central Pilot School is closed on plebiscite day, Monday, January 21, 2019. Stalls outside the school, on both sides of Sinsuat Avenue, closed shop, an unusual sight for an election day. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

The build-up of tension in the run-up to plebiscite day — the “Yes” and “No” supporters actively engaged in a word war over social media, mainstream media and campaign billboards and tarpaulins; the arrival of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) from Maguindanao and North Cotabato – 5,000 counted on Sunday by the Army’s 6th Infantry Division – further heightened when a grenade exploded at 9:10 p.m., some 10 hours before the polls were to open.

The grenade went off inside the compound of a municipal judge is vocal in his opposition to Cotabato City’s inclusion into the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Police search for evidence after a grenade explosion at the house of Judge Angelito Rasalan in Cotabato City evening of 20 January 2019. MIndaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejano, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, told a press conference Monday night that although there were some IED explosions, these had nothing to do with the plebiscite. “Even the explosion last night,” Sobejana said as he cited three possible angles: the nature of work of the owner of the house, personal grudge, and election-related which he said is “very unlikely.”

Ray Sumalipao, regional director of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said the conduct of the plebiscite in the entire ARMM (Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi including the citeis of Marawi and Lamitan) – and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela – was generally peaceful despite “some skirmishes in Cotabato City.”

He said voter turnout, overall in the plebiscite to ratify RA 11054 or the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, was “not lower than 60%.”

“Better safe than sorry”

In Cotabato City, a restaurant owner who had closed shop since Saturday told MindaNews he did so because it was “better to be safe than sorry.” Even a popular fastfood restaurant near where the canvassing would be held also closed shop.

Guests in a downtown hotel could not order dinner Monday because employees were sent home early as the owner was afraid there would be trouble and his workers would be stranded.

Teachers bring in the ballot boxes from their polling precincts to the Shariff Kubunsuan Cultural Complex Complex, the canvassing center of Maguindanao Province and Cotabato City, early evening of January 21, 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

“Baka magkagulo” (there might be trouble), was a common reply why shops closed, residents stayed home and fewer Cotabato City-based public and private vehicles plied the streets. But vehicles of supporters of the “yes” votes from the city and neighboring provinces were visible near schools where voting was held.

“Karamihan diyan hindi naman tagarito” (most of them are not from here), a 71-year old retired government worker said as he watched the crowd that had gathered outside the school. He was waiting for a popular drugstore near the Cotabato City Pilot school to open. It was nearly 5 p.m.

This is the first time in the history of elections in the city that shops closed. “Takot eh” (We’re afraid), he said.

The retired government worker was told by employees inside the drugstore that they would open once the crowd that had assembled outside the school – supporters of the Bangsamoro organic law from the city and outside — would leave. But they would leave only when the ballot boxes were transported to the Sharif Kabunsuan Cultural Complex in the ARMM compound, for canvassing.

BIAF presence: protection for ‘yes,’ intimidation for ‘no’

Fear that trouble would erupt became even more palpable when thousands members of the MILF’s BIAF and supporters from neighboring provinces arrived in the city.

“We treated their arrival here as ordinary citizen, for as long as they are not in uniform, they are not bearing arms,” said Sobejana.

Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi maintains that the city of Cotabato will survive and thrive even if it is not part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi told MindaNews last Saturday that the presence alone in the city of thousands of MILF and MILF supporters, as well as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) from other areas is intimidation as voters would be afraid to go out and vote.

Those who came to Cotabato City gathered in the mosques around the city. Sayadi, herself a Moro, said their presence is enough to instill fear in the voters.

Sayadi’s claim is bolstered by residents — both Moro and non-Moro — who would refer to those who are not from Cotabato City but are in Cotabato City because of the plebiscite as “outsiders,” “taga-labas” or “yang mga Bangsamoro” (those Bangsamoro).

Sobejana told the press conference Monday that there were around 5,000 BIAF Sunday “and we engaged the (MILF) Central Committee” particularly the BIAF Chief of Staff Sammy Gambar “and he told us that they will exert their best efforts to pull them out.”

He said they accounted for “only 2,000 out of 3000” but per their accounting on Monday, “it went back to 6,000.”

Supporters of a “yes” vote to ratify the Bangsamoro law, celebrate outside the ARMM compound in Cotabato City even as the city’s Board of Canvassers had yet to start canvassing the votes in the Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Complex inside the compound on Monday night, 21 January 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

But Sobejana said they beefed up their presence in the city “so that the MILF could not influence the result of this plebiscite” and residents would be confident to leave their residences and proceed to polling precincts to vote.

He said they were “not informed” and that they were “aware of their presence when our ground forces reported to us” about the arrival of the “unarmed” BIAF and MILF supporters.

“Only the electorate in Cotabato City can cast their vote,” Sobejana said, adding “their presence here does not add to the votes for yes in Cotabato.”

He said the unarmed BIAF and MILF supporters “are not wearing uniform but some of them wear ID cards so meaning to say, they are not hostile because they are identifying themselves. Hind po sila nagtatago,” he said.

“They were trying to support their constituents who wanted to vote for yes,” he said.

“Yes” supporters residing in barangays identified with the mayor had reportedly expressed fear they would not be able to vote. “No” supporters on the other hand expressed fear voters would opt to stay home.

Political, emotional issue

The fight for Cotabato City’s 113,751 votes is not only a political but also an emotional issue for a city that had rejected inclusion in the ARMM in 1989 and rejected inclusion in the supposed “expanded” ARMM in 2001.

[The city voted “yes” in the 1977 plebiscite conducted supposedly to implement the 1976 Tripoli Agreement between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) but then President Ferdinand Marcos, using his legislative powers under martial law, decreed the creation of two autonomous region instead of one comprising the Tripoli pact’s 13 provinces and nine cities].

The plebiscite in 1989 was held in November, nearly two years from the February 1988 local elections and almost three years to the next election in 1992. The 2001 plebiscite was held months after the local elections.

In the 1989 plebiscite, the MILF and MNLF boycotted the electoral exercise because they were pushing for the implementation of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 “in letter and spirit.” In 2001, the MNLF protested the deletion of important provisions in the 1996 Final Peace Agreement in what eventually became RA 9054. The MILF in 2001 was still negotiating peace with government.

The January 21 plebiscite is the only plebiscite on the autonomous region where both fronts are actively campaigning for “yes.”

Canvassing of Cotabato City’s votes at the Shariff Kubunsuan Cultural Complex in Cotabato City on 21 January 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Unlike the plebiscite in 1989 and 2001, Monday’s plebiscite, comes too close to the mid-term elections on May 13 and with Mayor Sayadi leading the campaign to vote “no” to inclusion in the BARMM, lines were immediately drawn.

The MILF and the national government, along with the MNLF under Yusoph Jikiri and Muslimin Sema actively campaigned for a “yes” vote to protect the gains of the peace agreements that led to the passage of the law that would create the BARMM, the new autonomous political entity that would replace the 28-year old ARMM.

Sema was former ARMM Executive Secretary and former mayor of the city. He is running for Congressman of the 1st district currently held by his wife, Bai Sandra, the Deputy Speaker for Mindanao. Bai Sandra is running for mayor against Sayadi.

Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF’s Peace Implementing Panel had earlier described Cotabato City as the “crown jewel.” The city was the seat of the Regional Autonomous Government when it was set up in the late 1970s, and had been the “temporary seat” of the ARMM since 1990. Even if the city voted against inclusion in 1989,  RA 6734, the law creating the ARMM, provided that the city would be its “temporary seat.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)