By Marifi S. Jara, Mindanao Bureau Chief
SECURITY and peace process leaders met with local officials Thursday afternoon to ease rising tension in Cotabato City in the aftermath of the Dec. 31 bombing and the run-up to the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite on Jan. 21.
“We are here to defuse the tensions and we don’t want to escalate the conflict,” Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana is quoted in a statement released Friday by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).
The meeting held in Camp Siongco, Maguindanao, was attended by Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito G. Galvez Jr., top military and police commanders, Cotabato Mayor Frances Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, Maguindanao 1st District and Cotabato City Rep. Bai Sandra Sema, and Bangsamoro Islamic Forces Chief of Staff Sammy Gambar Al-Mansoor.
A couple of days before the South Seas Mall blast that killed two and wounded 34 people, tension was already building up in Cotabato City following hostile social media postings over the BOL referendum.
The city, currently under the SOCCSKSARGEN region, will be among the areas that will vote for or against inclusion in the new Bangsamoro region that will be formed under the BOL.
The current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which will be replaced by the new BOL political and geographical set-up, has its government headquarters within a compound in Cotabato City.
The Cotabato mayor, in a Dec. 30 post on her official Facebook page, said, “Ako ay walang personal na interest dito tulad ng ikinakalat ng ibang sarado ang pag iisip na animo mga anghel na nakababa sa lupa(I have no personal interest here, contrary to what is being spread by some close-minded people who think themselves as angels who have come down to earth).”
“Ang interest ng nakararami ang importante sa akin, na malaya silang makapagdesisyon kung Ano ang nararapat sa buhay ng bawa’t Isa (The interest of the majority is what is important to me, that they be able to freely decide what is suitable for the life of each one),” Ms. Sayadi wrote.
Mr. Lorenzana said they called for the meeting to prevent speculation and “finger-pointing” on the bombing and ensure the people of “free and peaceful elections and plebiscites.”
“Rest assured that your military and police are doing their best to ensure that you can vote freely according to your choice,” he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Lorenzana presided over a command conference in Cotabato City with military and police officers to discuss updates on the bombing.
“Until we get to the bottom of this, we consider this incident a terror attack,” Mr. Lorenzana said.
At the conference, it was confirmed that the bomb “was made of a plastic container with improvised electric blasting cap, 9-volt battery, and concrete nails attached to a cellphone with sim card,” according to a statement from the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom).
Mr. Galvez, who previously led the WesMinCom and retired as head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines before heading the OPAPP, said, “We can’t win peace by force, but by persuasive diplomacy and understanding.”
Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has granted the petition of 20 local government units (LGUs) to be included in the plebiscite.
Comelec Spokesperson James B. Jimenez said the Comelec en banc, in the first batch of decisions, denied 24 other petitions to participate in the plebiscite “for failing to comply with the rules regarding the voluntary inclusion in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.”
The LGUs in Cotabato which will join the plebiscite are: Barangays Libungan Torreta, Upper Pangkalan, Datu Mantil, and Simsiman in Pigcawayan; Rajahmuda, Barungis, Gli-Gli, Nalapaan, Panicupan, Nunguan, Manaulanan, Bulol, Bualan, and Nabundas in Pikit; Langogan, Pebpoloan, Kibayao, Kitulaan, and Tupig in Carmen; and Pagangan in Aleosan.
The plebiscite will be held on Jan. 21 for provinces in the ARMM, Isabela and Cotabato City, and on Feb. 6 for Lanao del Norte except Iligan City and six municipalities in North Cotabato.
On Oct. 22 last year, the Comelec announced it was accepting petitions from areas outside the identified Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to be included in the plebiscite.
BARMM’s proposed territorial jurisdiction is composed of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, 39 barangays in Cotabato province, Cotabato City, and Isabela City in Basilan.
Aside from the abolition of ARMM and the formation of BARMM, the ratification of BOL would provide the region with additional financial assistance through a 75-25 percent tax collection scheme in favor of the region.
The national government will also give it a Special Development Fund of P5 billion every year for ten years for the rehabilitation of war-torn areas. — with Vann Marlo M. Villegas