By Ahmet Furkan Mercan and Sena Guler
Countdown has started for a plebiscite that will grant the Bangsamoros -- a collective term for Filipino Muslims living on an island south of the Philippines -- long-awaited comprehensive autonomy.
A plebiscite is set to begin on Jan. 21 in two cities, with a second round to be held on Feb. 6 in other areas in the neighboring region, to ratify the the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
Once the bill is ratified the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) would be created.
Freedom the Muslims in the region had for centuries was taken away from them by Americans in 1898 when the Spanish, who occupied the Philippines in the 16th century left the country to the U.S.
The Bangsamoro people, who were already deprived of freedom during the U.S. occupation, also faced harsh times due the Christian settlement policy of the Manila government, when Americans left the region to the Philippine Christians after managing it until 1946.
To realize the region's independence, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1972 under the leadership of Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat from the Muslim community.
When Misuari, then MNLF leader, signed the Tripoli Agreement with the Philippines government in 1976, the group was divided into two.
However, Salamat said the Bangsamoro Muslims deserved independence and the deal’s conditions were deception. He declared that the community had to continue negotiations until they reach freedom.
Announcing their aim as “an independent state in southern Philippines”, Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1976, breaking away from the MNLF.
Failure of Manila government
The negotiations were disrupted as the country failed to implement the deal at sufficient level and reduced the number of towns within the scope of the agreement.
Despite a number of negotiations between the Manila government and the MNLF, and the MILF after 1980s, no agreement could be reached.
Meanwhile, the Moro region had some gains from the negotiations such as recognition of some religious holidays, Islamic (interest free) banking and establishment Muslim Affairs Ministry.
In 1997, the government and the MILF initiated cease-fire talks, while MNLF became weaker.
The MILF officially dropped its demand for full independence in 2010, seeking regional autonomy instead.
In 2012, then President Benigno Aquino III and MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim -- who became the leader of the group after Salamat died in 2003 -- signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB).
The FAB constituted a roadmap to a final settlement which would allow for an autonomous region administered by minority Muslims in the south of this predominantly Catholic country.
The MILF and the Manila government also signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014, paving the way for the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
The 2014 deal brought to a close 17 years of negotiations and ended a decades-old armed conflict in the country’s south.
President Rodrigo Duterte speeds up the process
Moro peace talks gained momentum when Rodrigo Duterte came to power as the president in 2016.
Duterte pledged during election campaigns to end the conflict in the region.
The same year, the MILF -- which has around 12,000 armed members -- and the central government agreed to form the ARMM.
In 2017, the MILF submitted the draft BOL, which was prepared within the scope of peace agreement reached with the government, to Duterte.
This draft law was the latest significant attempt between the parties to end to nearly half a century of on-and-off conflict that has left more than 120,000 people dead and hampered development in the region.
The same year in May, the Congress approved the law, which provided for an autonomous region on Mindanao island.
On July 26, 2018, Duterte signed the landmark BOL.
In July 2018, Duterte presented the law to the MILF’s Ebrahim during a ceremony held at Malacanang Palace, where he said they ended decades-long conflict.
While the establishment of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the result of negotiations between the government and the MNLF, the Bangsamoro Organic Law has been forged as a result of the peace agreement that the MILF signed with former President Benigno Aquino III in 2014.
The BOL, which entered into force with Duterte’s signature, will increase legal and economic gains of the Muslims in the region.
With the establishment of the Bangsamoro government, the courts of Islamic Law will be opened in the region.
Regional authorities will be handed over to the Bangsamoro government from the Manila government.
MILF will decommission 40,000 combatants of its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAFF) when the BOL is ratified.