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SPECIAL REPORT: From bullets to ballots: MILF fields local bets for the 2022 polls

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 30 April) – Along the banks of the Tamontaka River near the majestic Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque or the Grand Mosque of Cotabato on March 25, Day 1 of the 45-day campaign period for local candidates, Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, chair of the erstwhile rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told the huge crowd: “Ang affair natin ngayon ay isa sa pinakahistoric dito sa atin sa Bangsamoro kasi unang eleksyon sa ating bansa na nagparticipate ang MILF.” (Our affair today is one of the most historic events in the Bangsamoro because this is the first election in the country where the MILF is fielding candidates). 

Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its political party, United Bangsamoro Justice Party, rallies support for UBJP candidates during the start of the local campaign period on 25 March 2021 in Cotabato City. Ebrahim is also interim Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The Moro leader and his convoy of luxury vehicles had to carefully maneuver amid a throng of people and vehicles, many lining very early in the morning along the Tamontaka-Bubong road to become part of Bangsamoro history. Ushered to the stage under heavy security, Ebrahim calmly stood and cleared his throat, introducing himself as wearing the hat of the president of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), the MILF’s political party.

Apart from being the MILF chair and UBJP president, Ebrahim wears another major hat, as the interim Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), where he is formally known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim. He promised to govern the region guided by the principle of “moral governance.”

The same moral governance principle has been embraced by UBJP in the MILF’s quest to continue the Bangsamoro cause for their right to self-determination, but shifting from bloody armed revolution to electoral or democratic struggle: from bullets to ballots. 

Ebrahim and senior UBJP leaders, basking in the crowd’s applause and cheers on their moral governance battlecry, marched their members and supporters to vote the candidates their political party fielded or is supporting across the Bangsamoro region.

A female supporter shows her vigorous support to UBJP candidates during the start of the local campaign on 25 March 2022 in Cotabato City. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

“Bumoto kayo at bibigyan kayo ni Allah ng reward, because it is part of the jihad, Insha’Allah,” Ebrahim said. “Wag natin itong sayangin na pagkakataon, first time tayo bumoto sa pangalan ng jihad, sa pangalan ng rebolusyon. Ngayon lang, so wag nating sayangin.” (Go out and vote. Allah will give you reward because it is part of the jihad, Insha’Allah. Let us not waste this chance. It is our first time to vote in the name of jihad, in the name of revolution. The chance is now, so let us not waste it.)

After waging a decades-long war for their right to self- determination in Mindanao, the MILF and the Philippine government signed on March 27, 2014 under the Aquino administration, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), after 17 years of peace negotiations.

The implementation of the CAB suffered delays and it was only in 2018, under the Duterte administration, when Republic Act 11054 or the Organic Law for the BARMM, the enabling law of the peace agreement, was passed.  Ratified in a plebiscite in January and February 2019,  it paved the way for the creation of the BARMM,  now consisting of five provinces and three cities and the 63 villages in six North Cotabato towns that joined the new autonomous region.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte sounds the gong to signal the inauguration of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) at the Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Complex in Cotabato City on March 29, 2019, marking what he said was a “new dawn” for the Moro.’ Joining the President is BARMM interim Chief Minister Ahod Balawag Ibrahim (MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim). ROBINSON NIÑAL JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

The BARMM was inaugurated on March 29, 2019 with President Rodrigo Duterte sounding the gong to mark the historic occasion.

The 2019 plebiscite was the first electoral exercise participated in by the MILF leadership and members, including its armed group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). Ebrahim cast his vote for the first time, naturally in favor of ratification.

The second electoral exercise participated in by the MILF/BIAF was the May 2019 midterm polls but the MILF, then on its first months in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the MILF-led body tasked to govern the BARMM during the transition period, did not field any candidate under UBJP. 

The transition period was supposed to end on June 30, 2022 with the oathtaking of the BARMM’s first set of elected officials but it was extended until June 30, 2025 with the passage of a law resetting the date of the first regular election from May  2022 to May 2025. 

2014 registration 

The MILF’s political party was organized in 2014 and was registered with the Commission on Elections in 2015, as it was then anticipating that the new  autonomous region that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao  would be established before the Aquino administration bows out of office on June 30, 2016. 

Six years after UBJP’s registration, and midway through an extended transition period, the MILF has been transitioning, too, from rebels to government leaders. From bullets to ballots. 

An MILF member listens to UBJP candidates during the start of the local campaign on 25 March 2022 in Cotabato City. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

To sustain the gains of the Bangsamoro peace process, the MILF’s UBJP fielded for the first time, candidates in this city, the seat of government of the Bangsamoro region, and its traditional bailiwick, Maguindanao, and is supporting other local candidates elsewhere in the region.

The creation of the Bangsamoro region is the centerpiece of the CAB, which Ebrahim stressed was the fruit of their nearly 50 years of armed struggle. 

“We need to protect the fruits of our struggle because we sacrificed our lives, we shed our blood and bear many hardships to reap it. We must ensure that the fruits that we reap we can further sow for the benefit of the next generation of Bangsamoro people,” the 72-year-old leader said at the rally. 

To protect and sustain the gains of the peace process, including the MILF’s leadership in the BARMM, Ebrahim rallied the front’s 40,000-strong armed forces and their families and the mass supporters of MILF to vote for the UBJP candidates and the other bets the party is supporting.

A month later, on April 23, 2022, the UBJP welcomed Vice President Leni Robredo in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, to declare support for Robredo.

Vice President Leni Robredo gets the endorsement of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, the political party of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, both chaired by Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, on her birthday on Saturday, 23 April 2022 at the MILFs Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. Ebrahim is interim Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO BUENO

“As we aspire for genuine reconciliation and national healing, having Leni Robredo as the next President of the country brings hope to the realization of the elusive unity, through inclusivity, good governance, and real democracy,” Ebrahim said. 

In response, Robredo, who was then celebrating her birthday, noted the MILF’s endorsement is a huge birthday gift to her.

“What I can assure the Bangsamoro people is that a Robredo presidency will be a friend of the Bangsamoro and a champion of the peace process,” she said.

UBJP’s platform of governance

At the riverside rally on March 25, Mohagher Iqbal, speaking as UBJP vice president for Central Mindanao, laid the UBJP’s platform of government before a crowd chanting Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest) many times. 

Like Ebrahim, Iqbal also wears other major hats. The MILF chief peace negotiator from 2003 to 2016 has been serving as MILF peace implementing panel chair since 2016 and as Bangsamoro Minister of Education since 2019. 

“First and foremost, the UBJP adheres, more than good governance, to moral governance – maka-Diyos na (God-centered) governance,” Iqbal explained. 

Mohagher Iqbal, UBJP vice president for Central Mindanao, addresses UBJP supporters during the start of the local campaign on 25 March 2022 in Cotabato City. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The MILF’s political party also fosters a consultative and collective leadership to empower the people, Iqbal said, stressing: “We need to give the power to our people.”

Another major platform of government of the UBJP, according to Iqbal, is infrastructure and economic development to uplift the lives of residents in the impoverished Bangsamoro region.

But the heart of the UBJP’s governance is to sustain the gains of the Bangsamoro peace process, Iqbal stressed.

“Kailangan na itong kapayapaan at hustisya na natamasa natin ngayon ay kailangan tuloy-tuloy na ito.  Wala nang daan na pwedeng tahakin kung hindi and daan ng kapayapaan” (There’s a need to sustain the peace and justice that we’re reaping now. There is no other path to tread but the way of peace), he said. 

“Tapos na po ang gyera. Tapos na po negotiations. Nandito na po tayo sa electoral at democratic struggle. Kailangan tuloy-tuloy yung daan sa Kalayaan. Tayo pong lahat balagan nahirapan po tayo sa panahon ng gyera, ayaw na natin ulitin yan, ayaw na natin ulitin yan,” (The war is over. The negotiations are over. We are now in the electoral and democratic struggle. The road to peace must be continuous.  All of us really suffered the cruelties of war – we don’t want that to happen again, we don’t want that to happen again).

At his office in the Bangsamoro Government Complex on March 24, the day before their riverside rally, Iqbal told MindaNews that the MILF formed the UBJP as the front veered away from armed struggle to the political and democratic struggle, still in pursuit of the Bangsamoro right to self-determination.

From ARMM to BARMM 

“The MILF will exist and transition into a social movement. One of UBJP’s main priorities is to promote the Bangsamoro identity and justice for our people,” he said. 

Iqbal noted that UBJP members, many of whom also belong to the MILF, are motivated by a spirit of voluntarism inculcated even while the front was waging war with the government.

A win by UBJP candidates is crucial to the Bangsamoro transition government, which is dominated by the MILF, in delivering social services and economic development alongside the implementation of the provisions of the peace agreement across the Bangsamoro region, Iqbal said.

The BARMM, which replaced the 29-year-old ARMM comprises the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the cities of Marawi, Lamitan and Cotabato, and 63 villages from six towns in North Cotabato.  

Cotabato City and the 63 villages in North Cotabato, now referred to as the Special Geographic Area, are the additions to the new autonomous region. The ARMM was composed of the same five provinces plus the cities of Marawi and Lamitan. 

A voter writes on her ballot in a polling precinct in Barangay Bagoinged inside Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Raja Muda in Pikit, North Cotabato during the plebiscite for the Bangsamoro Law on 6 February 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

During the January 2019 plebiscite, out of ARMM’s 1,980,441 registered voters, an overwhelming majority or 1,540,017 voted in favor of RA 11054’s ratification, as against the 198,750 who opposed it. In Cotabato City, which has at least 113,751 registered voters, those who voted for inclusion numbered 36,682 while 24,994 rejected it. 

Maguindanao overwhelmingly voted “yes” to ratify the Bangsamoro law, with 608,846 in favor and 9,096 against. The vote-richest province in the BARMM, Maguindanao had 640,244  registered voters then.

The four ARMM provinces – Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Tawi-tawi voted for inclusion in the BARMM. Only Sulu voted against inclusion but is still part of BARMM because RA 11054 provides that it that the ARMM provinces and cities voted as one geographical area. 

Vital to 2025 parliamentary polls

Iqbal noted the 2022 local elections is more complicated than the 2019 plebiscite, since the voting does not involve a single issue directly affecting the Bangsamoro people as a whole, unlike the plebiscite three years ago. 

Nevertheless, the MILF is hoping that on May 9, it would get the same voting trend in the 2019 plebiscite, particularly in Cotabato City, the seat of the BARMM and the defunct ARMM,  and in Maguindanao province. 

He explained that the 2022 election is very important for the MILF as a prelude to the 2025 Bangsamoro parliamentary elections. 

The UBJP is fielding a full slate in Cotabato City and in Maguindanao province. If they win in these areas, he said, this would help make the UBJP a force to reckon with during the 2025 parliamentary elections. The dominant political party becomes the “Government of the Day.” 

Under RA 11054, the Bangsamoro parliament shall be composed of 80 members 40 representatives of political parties, 32 single-member district representatives and eight sectoral representatives (two reserved seats for non-Moro indigenous peoples, two for settler communities and one sectoral seat each for women, youth, traditional leaders, and the Ulama). 

In Cotabato City, the UBJP standard bearer is Bruce Matabalao, a city councilor who is on his last and third term. His running mate is two-term city councilor Butch Abu, son of the late MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar. Matabalao is challenging incumbent Mayor Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who staunchly campaigned against the inclusion of the city to the Bangsamoro region.

She protested the results of the plebiscite in Cotabato City where majority voted for inclusion in the BARMM. She claimed voters against inclusion were threatened and intimidated. She also opposed the term extension of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim governing body of the BARMM. The BTA’s mandate is supposedly only until June 30, 2022, when the first set of BARMM elected officials shall have taken their oath. 

Maguindanao bets

The transition period in the Bangsamoro region, however, was extended for three more years after President Rodrigo Duterte signed in October a law postponing the 2022 Bangsamoro parliamentary elections and synchronizing it with the 2025 national elections.

Ebrahim, as interim Chief Minister and chair of the MILF, had pushed for the extension of the transition period, noting it will allow the government and the MILF to implement the provisions of the CAB and those provided by the BOL, which was hampered by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Maguindanao, the UBJP is fielding former three-term governor (2010-2019) and now 2nd District Rep. Esmail “Toto” Mangudadatu in the gubernatorial race against reflectionist Gov. Bai Mariam Sangkat-Mangudadatu (Nacionalista Party), wife of Sultan Kudarat Gov. Suharto “Teng” Mangudadatu, Toto’s cousin. 

Vice President Leni Robredo is flanked by (L to R) former Buluan Mayor Ibrahim “Jong” Mangudadatu, Bai Sandra Sema, candidate of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) for Vice Governor of Maguindanao, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, UBJP candidate for Maguindanao Governor, Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the UBJP and presently the interim Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Datu Roonie Sinsuat, reelectionist 1st district Representative. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

Four others are also gunning for the post: Hadji Yasser Ampatuan (Abag Promdi), Dhats Ganasi (Aksyon Demokratiko), Norsalyn Kasim (Independent) and Datu Mala Lumbos (Independent).

Toto Mangudadatu’s running mate is former 1st district Rep. Bai Sandra Sema., wife of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chair Muslimin Sema, now Labor Minister of the BARMM. 

Mangudadatu and Sema staunchly support the Bangsamoro peace process. Sema’s opponents are Bai Ainee Limbona-Sinsuat (Nacionalista Party), the wife of incumbent Vice Governor Lester Sinsuat; Alpata Utto (Abag Promdi) and independent candidates Suraida Abdullah and Abdulhadi Hasim. 

In the first congressional district, the UBJP’s bet is reelectionist Rep. Datu Roonie Sinsuat, Sr. In the second congressional district, the MILF’s political party is fielding former two-term Rep. Zajid “Dong” Mangudadatu, brother of Toto.

The other candidates in the first congressional district are Mohammad Ali Amil (Independent), Bai Donna Dilangalen (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan), Jashriya Dilangalen (Partido Demokratiko Sosyalista ng Pilipinas), Ellas Dimarao (Independent), BTA member Dimple Mastura (PDP-Laban) and Mastura Mokamad (Promdi). 

For the second congressional district, the other bets are Kadil Kayadtugan (Independent), Bing Mangacop (Promdi) and Datu Paglas Vice Mayor Tong Paglas (Nacionalista Party).

In the other parts of the region, the UBJP fielded slates only in some municipalities and provinces, with Iqbal saying the MILF is throwing support to those who supported the Bangsamoro peace process and the establishment of the BARMM. 

Sustaining gains of the peace process

Like Iqbal, Ebrahim also underscored the relevance of the May 9 polls to the 2025 Bangsamoro parliamentary elections.

The MILF chair stressed the need for UBJP candidates to win, noting that if they  lose, it would be difficult for the Bangsamoro government to deal with the local government units whose leaders beat the MILF’s bets, apparently referring to Cotabato City and Maguindanao province.

Pero kung mananalo tayo, Insha Allah, makikita ninyo na ang LGUs maging katuwang natin, kasangkapan natin para madeliver sa inyo ang programa ng BARMM” (But if we win, Insha Allah, the LGUs will be our partners in the delivery of the BARMM’s programs), Ebrahim said.

Ebrahim rallied support for the victory to the UBJP candidates, by issuing a general marching order.

“As chairman of the MILF, I order all MILF members to vote all the candidates of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party,” he said.

MILF members man a checkpoint at Camp Darapanan, the front’s main headquarters in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on 26 March 2022. The MILF has shifted its struggle from “bullets to ballots.” MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Iqbal said they are banking on the “hundreds of thousands” of MILF members and supporters to help bring victory to UBJP candidates in Maguindanao province and in Cotabato City.

He noted the UBJP is an important vehicle for the MILF’s continuing struggle to its final objective, which is to define the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination.

Iqbal stressed that while 85% of the CAB has been captured in RA 11054 or the Organic Law for the BARMM, implementation of the final peace agreement is still ongoing.

Political and Normalization tracks 

Three years after the Bangsamoro transition government was formed, implementation of the political and normalization tracks of the peace agreement remains a work in progress, hampered by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The political track involves, among others, the passage of the priority codes, the setting up of offices, the disposition of the personnel of the ARMM and the full transfer of powers and properties of the ARMM government to the BARMM government, except those properties, land and structures located outside of the ARMM.

The normalization track seeks to help MILF combatants transform into civilian lives and the recognized MILF camps into peaceful and productive economic zones.

Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) who will be decommissioned arrive at the Old Capitol complex in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat on Saturday, September 7, 2019, for the launch of the second phase of the decommissioning process. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Phase 1 of the decommissioning process involving 145 MILF fighters and 75 high-powered weapons was done in June 2015 in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, with then President Benigno Simeon Aquino III attending the ceremonies. 

President Rodrigo Duterte launched Phase 2, involving 12,000 MILF fighters and at least 2,100 assorted weapons, in September 2019, with the process completed in March 2020.

Last November, the third phase of decommissioning, involving 14,000 combatants or 35% of the 40,000-strong MILF and about 2,500 assorted weapons, kicked off and is still on going.

The remaining 35% will be decommissioned before the signing of the exit agreement between the government and the MILF and witnessed by the Malaysian facilitator of the peace negotiations and the Third Party Monitoring Team that the two parties created. 

Key to peace in Mindanao 

Iqbal stressed the need for the UBJP candidates to win to help sustain the gains of the Bangsamoro peace process and the implementation of the peace accord.

“The CAB has to be implemented because that’s the key to peace in Mindanao,” Iqbal stressed.

Ebrahim ordered MILF members and appealed to the front’s supporters to vote all the candidates fielded and supported by UBJP.

“We plead you that we help each other so that the fruits of the armed struggle will remain for our people, for our region,” Ebrahim urged MILF supporters.

UBJP candidates Bai Sandra Sema for Vice Governor of Maguindanao, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatugu who seeks to return as Governor of Maguindanao and Zajid Mangudadatu for 2nd district representative, are joined in this billboard by UBJP and MILF chair Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, who is also interim Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Government. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Musa Damao, president of the non-government Bangsamoro Dialogue for Peace and Justice, described the UBJP as “very powerful in the Bangsamoro communities,” especially in Maguindanao and the 63 villages in North Cotabato that voted for inclusion to the BARMM.

“That’s because of their sympathizers, apart from the core MILF members… The UBJP has a mass-based support,” Damao, who holds a doctorate degree on peace and development, told MindaNews.

Damao, a resident of the Bangsamoro Special Geographic Area comprising the 63 villages in North Cotabato, said MILF members “will vote as a bloc, giving UBJP candidates an edge over their rivals.”

“The MILF members usually follow the directive from the hierarchy,” he said.

According to him, the MILF’s cozying up with established politicians, such as Toto Mangudadatu, seeks to create a “powerful political bloc,” each complementing one another. 

Iqbal noted the UBJP wants a clean and orderly elections.

“That’s why we need to guard our votes. Like what we did in the 2019 plebiscite where our comrades, including the old folk, cried because they need to guard the votes. We must do that again. This is our fight, the fight of our people, of everyone, so let us keep watch of our votes,” he said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)

This special report was produced with support from Internews. 

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