Can the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) carry the momentum in North Cotabato after the overwhelming victory in Cotabato City?

In the last two weeks, a resounding ‘Yes’ reverberate among local government officials in every gathering as they manifest their support for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

Excitement and hope fill the atmosphere at the last gathering on January 19 in Kabacan, where about 50,000 Muslim residents coming from different parts of the province to join local government officials, cabinet officials, military officers, former rebels and members of the civil society organizations to manifest their support to the BOL.

While it was not the first time that the local government officials have signified their support to the peace process, it was quite a momentous occasion because of the presence of Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief Al Hadj Murad Ebrahim and his fellow MILF leaders.

Last January 12 was perhaps the first time that a highest official of a former enemy of the state had set foot in the seat of government of Cotabato Province.

Officials of the MILF were ecstatic after hearing the assurance of the local government officials, particularly Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza that they fully support the ratification of the BOL.

Originally, there were 39 barangays that have been included in the proposed territory of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

But of the 120 petitions, only 28 have been approved by the Commission on Elections.

Should the ‘Yes’ vote prevail in all of the 67 barangays in seven towns, it will definitely  redraw the map of the province.

MILF Information Committee chair Mohagher Iqbal expressed confidence saying that he is ‘almost sure’ that ‘yes’ vote will win in North Cotabato.

Aside from the momentum of the recently concluded plebiscite in Cotabato City, Iqbal was banking on the assurance of the provincial government officials that they fully support the ratification of the BOL as well as the inclusion of the 67 barangays to the proposed BARMM.

Under the law,  all towns should vote favorably for the inclusion of the listed barangays to the BARMM.  However, some misconceptions still abound on the ground. Some are assuming that if the ‘Yes’ vote will win, the entire town will be part of the BARMM.  Again, only the barangays  listed in the proposed territory will be part of the BARMM.

In the town of Pikit, 23 of its 42 barangays are included in the list of proposed territories. Eleven of which have voted ‘Yes’ in the 2001 plebiscite while the 12 new barangays have filed the petition for inclusion.

This means that more than half of Pikit’s total land area, which is about 604 square kilometers, would be carved out of the province if the ‘Yes’ vote will prevail.  In this Muslim-dominated town, over 80% of the 47,000 voters are Muslims.

In November last year, 19 barangays from Pikit have filed petitions for inclusion. Thus, 30 barangays could have been included in the proposed territory. A bigger part of Pikit would have joined the BARMM if the 19 petitions were approved.

To note, the 23 barangays are more than enough to create a new municipality.

In Midsayap, 13 of its 57 barangays are included in the proposed BARMM territory. Twelve of them are interconnected except for Central Labas, which is located in the northwest part of the town. However, the 12 barangays which are part of the proposed territories have cut-off barangay Lomopog like an island.

Barangays Rangeban and Tumbras filed petitions last year but only the latter made it to the list.

In Pigcawayan, Mayor Eliseo Garcesa was perhaps the first local chief executive I have interviewed who have openly expressed his support to the ratification of the BOL as well as the inclusion of eight barangays to the proposed BARMM.

Of the additional six barangays that filed the petition, only four have been approved making the list from eight to 12. These villages are mostly located on the southern portion of the peninsula-shaped municipality.

Should ‘Yes ‘vote prevail in this town, this would cut about one fourth of its total land area.  Only Barangay Patot  will be isolated from the 11 adjoining barangays . Patot, which sits on the mountainous northern part of the municipality, was once among the gateways to the sprawling Camp Abubakar Assidique – the former MILF main headquarters.

Perhaps the most complicated, at least in terms of geographical implications, among the seven towns when the ‘Yes’ vote will win are in the towns of Aleosan, Carmen and Kabacan.

In Aleosan, the four barangays listed on the proposed territory are not contiguous to Maguindanao but it is interconnected to some barangays in Pikit that are also in the list of proposed Bangsamoro territories.  The barangays of Dungguan, Lower Mingading and Tapodoc are among the 39 barangays that voted ‘Yes’ in the 2001 plebiscite while Pagangan was added later after it filed a petition before the Comelec.

In Carmen, only the village of Kibayao is directly contiguous to Datu Montawal town iin Maguindanao. The other six barangays are interconnected to Manarapan, which is among the original 39 barangays.

The villages of Kibayao, Kitulaan, Langogan Pebpoloan and Tupig were among those added in the list upon getting the approval of Comelec.

Should the  ‘Yes’ vote will also prevail in Carmen and Kabacan, it would punch a hole in the map of Cotabato Province.  Because in Kabacan, the villages of Buluan, Pedtad, Nangaan, Sanggadong Simbuhay, Simone and Tamped are not contiguous to Maguindanao.

The villages of Nangaan, Simbuhay and Sanggadong were among the 39 barangays. Thus, making the adjoining barangays eligible to file the petition for inclusion.

CONTROLLED TERRITORY. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters secure a road inside their controlled territory in Barangay Rajamuda, Pikit, North Cotabato.

In Kabacan, only the village of Sanggadong was isolated from the rest of the adjoining barangays included in the proposed territory.

The latest to the towns to be added in the list is Tulunan after  Galidan village filed the petition for inclusion. The barangay is  contiguous Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao.

While Iqbal is ‘almost sure’ that they would be able to get all the 67 barangays, in my own view, the town of Pikit will earn a resounding ‘Yes’ vote amongst the seven towns and will certainly redraw its territory on February 6.

Pikit is home to the third biggest camp of the MILF — the Camp Rajamuda — under the command of veteran Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) commander Jack Abas, chief of the MILF’s Eastern Mindanao Front.

The number of barangays in Pikit that wanted to join the BARMM speaks a ton of message as to how deep is the influence of the MILF in the grassroots level. It is a clear of manifestation of MILF’s control and power in the area.

More than half of the 67 villages sit on the shores of resource-rich Ligawasan Marsh. For years, the Ligawasan Marsh’s natural resources have remained untapped. Thus, whoever controls these villages  may also have the total control over the access to the marsh.

Over the years, hundreds of MILF mujahideen have sacrificed and fought up to their last breath to defend these territories. In Pikit alone, several wars have devastated communities — among these are the 23 barangays —  and until today have never fully recovered from the ashes of conflict.

The seeds of revolution have been nurtured by the blood, sweat and tears of the mujahideen. Do you think they will just let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip away?