THREE GRENADE explosions hit different areas in Lanao del Norte on the eve of the second round of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite on Wednesday, but the voting day itself went generally smoothly, according to election and security officials.
“Very early this morning, we were receiving reports from Lanao and North Cotabato that the distribution of supplies and paraphernalia was proceeding smoothly. No problems were encountered. By 8 a.m., we received reports that 100% of precincts in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato were opened and functioning,” Commission on Elections (Comelec). Spokesperson James B. Jimenez said at a press briefing in Manila around 2 p.m., an hour before voting was scheduled to close.
“So far, it is showing up to be a very successful elections. Of course, if something happens on the very last minute, that very last minute is going to define the whole exercise but with that caution in mind, yes it’s been successful so far,” Mr. Jimenez said.
He added that the Comelec is also verifying “persistent rumors” of the presence of armed men, reportedly members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in some areas.
Military officials on the ground, meanwhile, reported a generally peaceful conduct of the plebiscite.
Major Arvin Encinas, spokesperson of Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division, told the media that no “untoward incidents” were reported in North Cotabato as of early afternoon.
Lt. Col. Gerry M. Besana of the Western Mindanao Command said that aside from isolated reports of alleged harassment, the plebiscite in both Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato was “generally peaceful.”
Mr. Encinas noted that coordination meetings were held earlier this week among the military, the Philippine National Police (PNP), Comelec, and other stakeholders, including representatives of the MILF as well as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Zukarno Budzar, a resident of Barangay Sumbaluwan in Midsayap and an officer of the MNLF’s Misuari faction, said they told their members to vote freely.
Pinapabayaan namin ang mga kasamahan namin sa MNLF na bumoto ng kung ano ang naaayos sa pinapaniwalaan nila (We allowed our comrades in the MNLF to vote according to what they believe in),” Mr. Budzar said in an interview.
Sambulawan is a village in Midsayap, North Cotabato where members of both the MNLF and MILF live.
The plebiscite was to decide on whether six towns in Lanao del Norte and 67 barangays in seven towns in Cotabato are to join the new Bangsamoro region that will be formed under the BOL.
The BOL, which arises from the peace deal between the government and the MILF, was ratified in the first round of the plebiscite last Jan. 25 held in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela.
Meanwhile, Senior Supt. Bernard M. Banac, Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesperson, said investigations are ongoing on Tuesdays three explosions, where there were no reported casualties.
“We’re looking at some possible spoilers. Undetermined pa kung ilan (still how many), but police investigation is ongoing,” said Mr. Banac in a phone message to BusinessWorld.
The first explosion happened at around 4:30 p.m. at Barangay Maranding in the town of Lala, followed around 20 minutes later by the second one beside the multi-purpose gym in Kauswagan town. The third explosion happened at 10:00 p.m. inside the compound of the Mindanao State University Municipal High School in the town of Sultan Naga Dimaporo.
None of these towns are among the six up for decision in the plebiscite. The Lanao del Norte municipalities involved in the referendum are: Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Panta, Tagoloan, and Tangkal.
The PNP said a total of 7,312 security personnel were deployed in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato for the plebiscite, composed of 5,573 police officers and 1,739 military.
Malacañang condemned the explosions, tagging these as the work of cowards.
“The explosions on the eve of the BOL plebiscite stem from acts of cowardice on the part of those who resist change and want to perpetuate the climate of fear, hopelessness and poverty among the Bangsamoro people and the Christian inhabitants in Mindanao,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said in a statement.
“The road to lasting peace in that region is not without obstacles strewn by those who foment disunity and who purvey the status quo. We shall not be waylaid by the twin forces of obstruction and destruction,” he added.
Mr. Jimenez said initial reports indicate that voter turnout in some areas were higher than 75%. — Gillian M. Cortez, Tajallih S. Basman, Vince Angelo C. Ferreras, and Arjay L. Balinbin