MANILA (1st UPDATE) - Polling precincts opened Wednesday as 2 southern Muslim enclaves decide on whether or not to join a new autonomous region, following a series of blasts and the reported presence of former rebels allegedly meant to intimidate voters.
Three explosives went off Tuesday in areas near polling precincts in Lanao Del Norte, where 6 municipalities petitioned to be included in the Bangsamoro region expected to bring prosperity and security after decades of armed conflict.
Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which supports the vote for inclusion, were also reportedly spotted in the province and neighboring North Cotabato that has 67 barangays seeking to join the new region.
Additional security troops were deployed to Lanao Del Norte and North Cotabato, where some 700,000 voters were set to join the plebiscite, said Commission on Elections spokesperson James Jimenez.
MILF members in the area were unarmed "for the most part" and do not appear to be fighting forces, he added.
All teachers supposed to man the plebiscite also showed up despite reports that some were terrified by Tuesday's blasts, Jimenez said.
"We hope na iyung mga tao, bumoto pa rin," he told radio DZMM.
(We hope that the people will still vote.)
VOTING FOR PEACE
Malawan Lampatan, an 85-year-old MILF member, said he supports the Bangsamoro region because he wants an end to the decades-long armed struggle that has brought hunger to displaced communities.
Sharing his sentiment is Fatima Nawal, widow of an MILF member killed by hostilities about a decade ago.
"Sobrang hirap kasi ako na lang ang tumayong ama at ina," she told ABS-CBN News.
(It's very hard because I had to be both father and mother to my children.)
The police and military have yet to identify the possible motive in the bombings in Kauswagan, Sultan Naga de Maporo and Lala towns.
The incidents, which did not cause any fatality or injury, came just days after 2 bombings left dozens dead in a cathedral in Sulu province and a mosque in Zamboanga City.
Kauswagan Mayor Rommel Arnado said the latest blasts may have been aimed at scaring voters, many of whom supposedly oppose the MILF after previous attacks in the south.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said "no amount of bombing or terroristic act will scare, intimidate or threaten the voters from participating in today's plebiscite."
"We assure the electorate in that part of Mindanao that the Armed Forces of the Philippines have provided safeguards for their safety and will be in full alert to thwart any attempt from any armed group or terrorists to derail the present democratic process," Panelo said in a statement.
A Jan. 21 plebiscite that ratified the creation of the Bangsamoro was also beset by complaints that the MILF harassed residents, particularly in Cotabato City, to vote for inclusion.
The MILF, whose 2014 deal with the government led to the Bangsamoro's creation, denied the accusation coming mainly from Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi.
The Bangsamoro will get P50 billion in development funds over the next 10 years, as well as a chunk of the tax revenue generated within its borders.
The national government will keep control over the police, though the leadership of the autonomous area will be closely involved in security matters.
Following the "double-majority" rule, Lanao del Norte will have to consent to the inclusion of the municipalities of Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan, and Tangkal in the new region.
The 67 barangays in North Cotabato will also need the majority vote from the 7 towns covering them: Aleosan, Carmen, Kabacan, Midsayap, Pigkawayan, Pikit, and Tulunan.
With reports from Agence France-Presse; Ron Gagalac, Arianne Apatan and Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News