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Registration Symbolizes First Step in Integrating MILF in Philippines Electoral Process

March 11, 2015

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

It was an admirable effort. On March 7, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), understaffed with just four commissioners left after the retirement of Chairman Sixto Brillantes, held a symbolic special satellite voter registration of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members and their families. Armed with five data-capturing machines, staffed by both national and local election officers, and supported by the members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), the International Monitoring Team, the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) volunteers, and civil society partners, the COMELEC stuck to its mandate as an independent commission to register voters, even if they were combatants and their families.

Skepticism was rife that the registration would even be held, for it came in the wake of the January 25 incident in Mamasapano, a 5th class municipality in Maguindanao just 32 miles away from where the registration event took place in the Darapanan compound in Sultan Kudarat, that claimed the lives of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) soldiers, 18 Moro rebels, and five civilians in a special operation to capture Malaysian terrorist, Zulkifli bin Hir, known as Marwan, and Filipino bomb-maker, Abdul Basit Usman. Dubbed “Oplan Exodus,” the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force operation aimed to arrest the targets, but SAF forces were overpowered by the MILF splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Poorly coordinated with other elements of the State security forces, the special operation resulted in the death of Marwan, but also opened a Pandora’s box of doubts on the sincerity of both the government and the MILF in pursuing the peace process. Prior to the Mamapasano incident, the general public perceived the peace process as “only a Mindanao” issue. But after the Mamapasano incident, it became very clear to everyone why the peace process should not – and cannot – fail.

It is a known fact that conflicts due to Muslim separatism form the main challenge to peace and development in Mindanao. The protracted war in Mindanao has claimed not only thousands of lives, but has also resulted in increased poverty, breakdown in the rule of law and governance, and continued displacement of peoples, particularly women and children who suffer the most. At the height of the conflict in mid-2000, not only were there thousands of casualties, but the number of internally displaced people had swelled to 800,000. If another all-out war were to result as a response to the Mamapasano incident, then the same cycle of violence would risk being repeated.

The special satellite registration for MILF members is a mandated step in the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Months of discussions were held among the COMELEC leadership, the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, and the MILF to undertake this registration. The special registration is also part of nationwide efforts to intensify validation of voters in compliance with the law on mandatory biometrics voter registration which states that those voters whose biometrics have not been captured would not be allowed to vote in the coming elections. The participation of a broad coalition of religious leaders and civil society organizations was essential to monitor the satellite registration on March 7, as well as those in an additional 204 barangays in the Bangsamoro Core territory that have been deemed by COMELEC to be “under-registered,” to ensure credibility of the special registration process. Ambassador Henrietta de Villa, PPCRV chair, said that the registration was the first step in the integration of the MILF into the country’s electoral process, and is significant in pushing the peace process.

An elderly MILF supporter is assisted in filling out a voter’s registration form during the registration of MILF central committee members and supporters in Maguindanao on March 7.

An elderly MILF supporter is assisted in filling out a voter’s registration form during the registration of MILF central committee members and supporters in Maguindanao on March 7.

Symbolic it was. For the registration saw two members of the MILF Central Committee, field commanders, and their families side by side with members of the COMELEC, the state security sector, and civil society groups. It was no small feat to have all these stakeholders from different, and sometimes conflicting social orders, come together in one room to pursue peace.

MILF spokesperson

MILF Spokesman and Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) member Von Al-Haq (seated) personally fills out a voter’s registration form during the registration of MILF central committee members and supporters in Maguindanao on March 7.

The historical significance and symbolic nuance of the event might be overlooked by critics and political pundits who measure sincerity by the number of firearms surrendered or by the number of registrants who go to the registration site. What they might not realize, however, is that it took courage from all sides to be at that place, at that particular time, laying down their cards and putting their stakes on a process which they, particularly the MILF, have never participated in before. Without a doubt, this symbolic registration was a signal of the MILF’s sincerity in pursuing the peace process.

Prior to the opening of the registration, MILF Vice Chair Ghadzali Jaafar went to the registration site and met with COMELEC Commissioner Al Parreno, Director Teopisto Elnas, Jr., Provincial Election Supervisor Udtog Tago, Regional Director Rey Sumalipao, and Ambassador Henrietta de Villa to state that he welcomed the COMELEC initiative. While he clarified that he would only register as a voter after the Basic Bangsamoro Law is signed into law, he did assure that the MILF field commanders, their families, and communities would be participating in the registration process. About 200 of them trooped to the BLMI training center to register, many of them women, and many as first-time registrants.

Sittie Miriam, former resident of Cotabato City, resides in Camp Darapanan, the MILF’s headquarters community. A first-time registrant, Miriam has never participated in previous elections because of the intermittent conflict. With the resumption of the peace talks, she now believes that there is hope, and expressed interest in participating in the electoral process. By participating in the registration, she took the first, important step in the electoral process, risking exposure as a MILF family member, but taking that leap of faith in the democratic process.

It was one of the most peaceful registrations I have ever witnessed – a rarity in the conflict-affected areas of Mindanao that are more accustomed to events like this being marred by violence. With the registration process made clear to the participants, the actual process took around 15 minutes, with PPCRV volunteers and civil society organizations assisting the registrants. There were about 200 registrants, many of them women. The presence of so many women as first-time registrants in a symbolic special registration held a day before International Women’s Day is indeed a cause for celebration.

It is hoped that the upcoming satellite registrations in 204 barangays in the Bangsamoro core territory scheduled in March and April will likewise be peaceful. COMELEC Commissioner Al Parreno is optimistic that the continuing registration in the Muslim Mindanao will “help build peace” in Mindanao.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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