By Ahmet Furkan Mercan
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (AA) – A referendum set to shape the future of Muslims in the southern Philippines has started on Monday.
The Bangsamoro Muslims, long deprived of freedom under the U.S. and the modern Philippine state, reached the final phase in an autonomy agreement signed with the government in Manila in July 2018.
On Monday, nearly 3 million people are voting on the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) under tight security measures in Cotabato City, the regional center of Muslim Mindanao.
The voting started at 7.00 a.m. (2300GMT) and will conclude at 3.00 p.m. (0700GMT).
The referendum is set to grant the Bangsamoro or Moro — a collective term for Filipino Muslims living on an island in the southern Philippines — long-awaited comprehensive autonomy.
Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, leader of Moro Islamic Liberation Front, cast his vote at the Simuay Junction Central Elementary School and told reporters he was hopeful that the law will be ratified.
"The BOL is our instrument for peace and development," Ebrahim said.
Once the bill is ratified, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will be created.
- Autonomy agreement
The BOL is set to increase legal and economic gains for Muslims in the region.
With the establishment of the Bangsamoro government, courts of Islamic law will be opened in the region.
Regional authority will be handed over from the capital Manila to the Bangsamoro government.
When the BOL is ratified, the MILF group is also set to decommission 40,000 combatants of its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAFF).