Millions of residents in the southern Mindanao region of the Philippines will vote on August 15 on whether to join areas under Muslim self-rule, President Gloria Arroyo said Friday.
The plebiscite covering 10 provinces not already under the four-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is part of the terms of a 1996 peace agreement that ended the separatist campaign of Muslim rebels under the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The proposed ARMM expansion is seen to accommodate a second separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a truce with the Manila government last week preparatory to an expected political settlement.
Arroyo told a news conference the vote would dovetail with the “final phase of the peace accord” with the MILF.
She told visiting Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid prior to the news conference that “whatever agreements (Manila) will have with the MILF, it will be within the same framework as the MNLF,” an official who attended the meeting told reporters.
Arroyo said this means there will be “no overlapping of agreements” or the creation of a second autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao, said the official, who asked not to be named. Indonesia helped broker the MNLF agreement.
Mindanao, a resources-rich area that is twice the size of Belgium and is populated by 18 million people, has been wracked by three decades of Muslim rebellion. Muslims make up less than a fourth of the region’s population and live in the poorer areas.
Only four majority-Muslim provinces elected to join the ARMM in a plebiscite held shortly before the peace agreement with the MNLF. Christian settlers make up the majority in most of the other provinces there.
Arroyo said Philippine government negotiators who held talks with the MILF in Tripoli, Libya last week committed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) a “firm timetable” for the peace process.
This includes “a plebiscite on August 15 and a regional election on November 26 for the ARMM.”
The MNLF founder, Nur Misuari, is the current governor of ARMM, which enjoys a measure of self-rule.