Rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters stand guard during a celebration in the southern Philippines. (ucanews.com file photo by Ferdinand Cabrera)
Christian groups in the southern Philippines are gathering support for the establishment of a new autonomous Muslim region after voter registration for a special plebiscite on the issue began in Mindanao on Sept. 11.
The plebiscite is scheduled for Jan. 21, 2019, to decide whether to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which is part of a 2014 peace deal between the government and Moro rebels.
The ratification of the law will establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which will replace the current autonomous region.
Edgardo Ramirez, deputy governor for Christians in the region, appealed to non-Muslim voters to register.
"This is our obligation in a democratic society. Our united voice should come out in the plebiscite," Ramirez told ucanews.com.
Muslims comprise 90 percent of the population while the rest belong to various Christian denominations, the majority of them Catholic.
Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato has voiced support for the creation of the new autonomous Muslim region, saying it "responds to the age-old aspiration of the Bangsamoro for authentic political and fiscal autonomy."
"It will enable them to chart their own development and destiny.... To a significant degree, it redresses historic injustices against the Bangsamoro," said the prelate.
The vast majority of the 40,000-strong rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front is expected to register to vote, said Von Al Haq, spokesman of the group's armed wing.
"It is important for the combatants to register so they can exercise their right of suffrage," he told ucanews.com.
In past elections, the rebels have observed a "stay-away policy."
Al Haq said ratification of the law and the creation a new autonomous region will see the "centuries-old quest of the Bangsamoro people for recognition realized."
He said at least "99 percent" of the rebel group's 40,000 fighters would register for the plebiscite.
Ray Sumalipao, an election official in the region, said his office wants to get as many potential voters involved in the plebiscite.
Rebel leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim has been actively campaigning for ratification of the law even as he warned of "major challenges," especially in transforming the 40,000 rebels from fighters to "productive civilians."
Murad has been chosen to be chief minister of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which shall be the interim government following ratification until the first regular elections in new region are held in 2022.
Murad says the task of running the new region would be difficult because it would be totally different to what he is used to doing.
"I am a veteran of a thousand and one battles, but I am a neophyte in the art of governance," said the rebel leader who once served as the rebel group's vice chairman for military affairs.