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February 22, 2019

Key rebel stronghold left out of Philippines' Muslim territory

Key rebel stronghold left out of Philippines' Muslim territory
'Locals will have more control over their territory and see an influx of government cash for development projects' - By: AFP/File Noel CELIS

Dozens of communities won approval to join a new Muslim-led territory in the Philippines' south, results showed Thursday, yet the exclusion of a key rebel stronghold raised concerns about the peace process in the restive region.

The results are from the second and final round of a landmark referendum that was the culmination of a decades-long process seeking to halt Muslim separatist violence that has claimed some 150,000 lives since the 1970s.

Voters had already overwhelmingly approved last month the so-called Bangsamoro region, which is centred on the island of Mindanao in the majority Catholic nation's south.

Locals will have more control over their territory and see an influx of government cash for development projects aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty and violent extremism.

The second round of voting on February 6 focused on whether a string of smaller communities would get approval from the municipality or region that surrounds them to join the Bangsamoro.

Official results released Thursday by the Philippines' electoral commission showed 63 of 67 villages in the North Cotabato region would join.

However, in an expected outcome, voters in the majority-Christian region of Lanao del Norte refused to allow six local towns to become part of the Bangsamoro.

The result is that at least one major rebel camp belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose peace deal with Manila prompted the vote, won't be inside the boundaries of the Bangsamoro.

That is important because the rebels are supposed to lay down their arms and transition into leading the newly formed territory.

Experts said it is unclear what impact the Lanao del Norte vote will have on long-term peace prospects as fighters under the MILF should still give up their weapons even outside the Bangsamoro.

A key commander of those forces is also in line for a high-level job in the Bangsamoro's new government, which was widely seen as an effort to keep him and his troops in the fold.

Still, Zachary Abuza, a security expert at the National War College in Washington, told AFP some fighters would surely be unhappy with the vote's result and could be a threat to peace.

"I think it's a very delicate situation," he said. "If it's mishandled it could be bad."

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