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Bangsamoro / Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

Bangsamoro Filipinos from the country's Muslim-majority southern region decided on a new law which would place them under a substantially more autonomous regional government. The 20 January 2019 plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law was the culmination of the decades-old peace process between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the Front), which started out as a secessionist armed movement in the southern island of Mindanao in the late 1970s. The Bangsamoro, which means Moro nation, will replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which had been criticised as merely nominal, and failed to end the violent conflict that had left at least 120,000 people dead over the past five decades.

The proposed new Bangsamoro is a more powerful and possibly larger political unit than the ARMM. It will have its own parliament, some exclusive powers previously held by the government in Manila, and a significantly larger share of local revenues. Above all, it will mean the end of the Front's armed struggle, with the decommissioning of its 35,000 troops and its leaders taking positions in the new civilian government. The proposed law also had the backing of President Rodrigo Duterte with his spokesperson confirming it as "a historic piece of legislation in our quest for lasting peace in Mindanao as this would correct the historical injustices committed against the Moro people".

Voters in Mindanao overwhelmingly voted for the creation of the Bangsamoro. Voters delivered a convincing result of about 1.7 million in favour and some 254,600 against, according to official results from the Philippines elections commission. However, voters in Jolo and the entire Sulu province voted against the new regional unit. The Muslim-majority island province of Sulu voted against the new proposal, but it was overwhelmed by votes from other provinces. Basilan province's capital city of Isabela also rejected the new region, even as the rest of Basilan approved it.

Numbering roughly six million, the Moro people are considered a minority among the Philippines' population of more than 100 million. They consist of about a dozen ethnolinguistic groups native to the southwestern Mindanao region, bound together by their practice of Islam in the predominantly Christian archipelago.

A history of prejudice and neglect by the mainstream government has reduced the Moro homeland into one of the country's poorest regions. More than half of their population live below the poverty line, according to government data. The current Moro rebellion began in 1969 with the establishment of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Led by the charismatic university lecturer Nur Misuari, the group fought the government for an independent state.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) The term "Bangsamoro" measn literally “Moro Nation”. It has always referred to Muslims, with the word “Moro” taken from the Spanish for Muslim (Moor). Mindanao saw the rise of the first political units ruled by the early datus. Major socio-political changes however, happened when Sheik Makdum, an Arab missionary, came and introduced Islam in Mindanao in the 13th century and followed by Shariff Kabunsuan in the 15th century. Thus, Islamic communities were formed throughout Mindanao, a situation eventually uniting the Mindanao mainland with its sub-urban islands with the formation of the Islamic Sultanates under one Supreme Council. The greater majority the converted to Islam co-existed peacefully, socially, economically, political and even culturally with their highlander neighbors.

The united stance adopted by Muslims had become the shield by which the Mindanaons repelled the influences of foreign domination which the Spaniards, the Americans and the Japanese tried to impose on them. In the early 1900’s, the Manila government opened Mindanao, dubbed as “The Land of Promise”, to settlers who were welcomed to share the fruits of its vast and rich natural resources. The influx of settlers, majority of whom came from nearby Visayas, made Mindanao a place of diversified groups whose ethnicity, culture, traditions and beliefs never became a source of misunderstanding, apprehensions and even fears among the early Mindanaons.

The situation changed when land grabbing and social injustices were committed by some deceiving groups against the region’s peace-loving people. These reprehensible acts made the people question the motives of the government. In February 1973, the Mindanao problem escalated into an armed conflict, involving the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Mujahideen and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The conflict led to the death of thousands of innocent people, the displace of tens of thousands more, and the destruction of billions of pesos worth of property. All these could have been avoided if the government considered the plight of the Mindanaons, which raged on for years even with the conduct of peace talks.

Finally, on July 7, 1975, the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 742 and Letter of Instruction 290 creating Western and Central Mindanao regions in Mindanao and establishing the Office of the Regional Commissioner in both regions. Hostilities, however, continued. The military and the MNLF persisted with their armed confrontations. The Situation attracted the attention of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which intervened to find solutions to by sponsoring a series of negotiations between the Philippine Government and the MNLF.

The intervention lead to the signing fo the Tripoli Agreement between the Philippine Government and the MNLF in Tripoli, Libya on December 23, 1976. Ceasefire was proclaimed in the affected areas of Mindanao, particularly Western and Central Mindanao regions. President Marcos, on March 25, 1977, signed Presidential Proclamation No. 1628 forming an autonomous region in Southern Philippines. The people, however, opted to retain the original political subdivisions of Western and Central Mindanao regions in a referendum – plebiscite on April 17, 1977. On may 7, 1977, Presidential Proclamation 1628-A was issued adopting the wishes of the people. This did not appease the Bangsamoro Fronts, which called the Autonomous regions as a unilateral implementation by the Manila government of the Tripoli Agreement and, as such, was not recognized by the Mujahideen.

On July 25, 1979, Batas Pambansa No. 20 was enacted creating the Regional Autonomous Government in Western and Central Mindanao regions. The moves, however, did not stop the hardcore Mujahideen, which had already split up into three groups – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Misuari, the Moro Islamic Liberation From (MILF) under Hashim Salamat, and the MNLF-Reformist under Dimas Pundatu – from pursuing their revolutionary goals. This is in spite of success the Philippine government made in attracting back into the folds of the law a big number of Moro rebels. Many up their arms. Among those who led the MNLF in the struggle but later joined government were the pioneering top commanders of the MNLF.

President Corazon C. Aquino, after fall of the Marcos administration, pursued a more vigorous approach to solve the Mindanao problem. She met MNLF Chairman Nur Misuary in Jolo, Sulu and followed this up with peace negotiations. All were formalized by the Jeddah Accord on January 3, 1987, which focused on the full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement. The Aquino government, even as the talks failed, sought the creation of the Autonomous Region in Mindanao (ARMM) by providing the 1987 Philippine Constitution and directly ordered to convene the Ad hoc Council of the Regional Consultative Council, the body tasked to draft the Organic Act that would serve as the operations manual of the ARMM.

The Organic Act was signed into law, as Republic Act 6734, by President Aquino on August 1, 1989 and a plebiscite was conducted in the proposed area of the ARMM on November 17, 1989. Of the 13 proposed provinces, only four; Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi joined the ARMM. The first set of ARMM officials were elected on February 17, 1990. Due to electoral protest, the ARMM formally started to function only on July 9, 1990 following the oath taking of Atty. Zacaria A. Candao as First Regional Governor of ARMM. By and large, the ARMM could not have taken shape without the blood, sweat and tears; the sacrifices and the hardships the Bangsamoro mujahideen and the Bangsamoro people struggled for self-determination for a more developed and more peaceful place to live.

Thus, the ratification of Republic Act #9054, an act to strengthen and expand the Organic Act for the ARMM amending for the purpose. RA #6734, entitled “An Act Providing for the ARMM” as ameded in September 2001 plebiscite paved the way for the expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to include the Province of Basilan and City of Marawi.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao seeks to fulfill only two general objectives: Development and Peace for its 2.8 million people in the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and City of Marawi. The new expanded ARMM is headed by one (1) Regional Governor, one (1) Regional Vice Governor and twenty four (24) representatives of Regional Legislative Assembly representing the eight districts of the five provinces and one city of the region. The new regional leadership has ushered new hopes for the expanded ARMM and has commenced governing the region with clear policy guidelines and development directions anchored on transforming the autonomous regional government toward responsive governance.

On October 15, 2012, the MILF and the government signed a Framework Agreement, which calls for the creation of an autonomous political entity called the “Bangsamoro,” replacing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The agreement provides the potential for peace between the two parties, but how it will affect and influence other armed insurgent and criminal groups is still unknown. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a MILF splinter group, continued to confront government and other groups in Mindanao.

The biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines on 27 March 2014 signed an historic pact with the government to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest conflicts. The rebels’ battle for self-determination had left more than 120,000 dead and displaced millions.

Over two years after the Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group signed a pact aimed at ending four decades of bloody unrest in the south, questions remained about where the peace process is headed. Before adjourning for a months-long break, Congress failed to pass a proposed law that would create a self-governing region for the rebel area.

A bungled 2015 police operation to arrest a Jemaah Islamiyah-linked fighter in a Front-held area of Maguindanao province dampened public confidence in the group, and the law to create the Bangsamoro sat out several legislative cycles under Aquino's successor, Rodrigo Duterte. The process picked up again in 2017, after the five-month siege of Marawi City by ISIL-linked fighters highlighted the need for a final peace deal.

After gruelling negotiations between legislators and a Front-led Bangsamoro transition panel, Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law in July 2018. The Bangsamoro will have a parliamentary government, a justice system based on Islamic law, a 75 percent share of local revenues and a yearly grant from the national government equivalent to five percent of the entire country's revenues.

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