The vote caps a tumultuous peace effort by the government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main rebel group, to seal a deal that was signed in 2014 but languished in the Philippine congress until it was finally approved last year.
Bloodshed on Mindanao island, including the siege of Marawi city by Isis-linked militants in 2017 and other bombings and attacks in the south threatened to derail it.
“This is the first time I have voted in an election,” 70-year-old Murad Ebrahim, the chairman of the MILF, said on Monday as he showed off his ink-stained finger. “This solidifies the transformation from armed struggle to democratic politics.”
Under the deal for Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the rebels gave up their goal of an independent state in exchange for broad autonomy. Their 30,000-40,000 fighters are to be demobilised, ending a decades-long separatist rebellion that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Murad was confident of a landslide victory for autonomy in most areas. “The Bangsamoro Organic Law will be ratified and the Bangsamoro government will be established,” he said.
More than 2m ballots have been printed and a result is expected by Friday. President Rodrigo Duterte last week urged voters to approve the plan and show they wanted peace, development and a local leadership that “truly represents and understand the needs of the Muslim people”.
Centuries of conquest first by Spanish and American colonial forces that had ruled the Philippine archipelago, followed by Filipino Christian settlers, have gradually turned Muslims into a minority group in Mindanao, triggering conflict over land, resources and the sharing of political power.
Uprisings seeking self-rule have been brutally suppressed, feeding more resentment. The peace process that began in 1997 has been disrupted through the years by violent episodes, including an all-out war between the military and the MILF in 2001.
Regional conflict escalated in in May 2017 when Isis militants took control of the Mindanao city of Marawi. It took a bloody five-month battle by the Philippine army, backed by US and Australian surveillance aircraft, to quash the militants in a conflict that left 1,200 people, mostly Islamic fighters, dead and the city in ruins.
Carlito Galvez Jr, the former chief of staff of the armed forces, said the creation of the Muslim region was an important antidote to extremism in the region.
“Beyond the economic and other fiscal incentives the law aims to provide, the BOL is, first and foremost, a document of peace,” said Galvez, who will oversee the decommissioning of the rebel forces.
“The BOL will ensure that those who use armed violence will become irrelevant because the law will provide people with greater incentive to choose the path of peace and development,” Galvez said.
Galvez said the creation of the region would also facilitate better cooperation between the military, police, and the rebels in addressing other armed groups.
Despite the fall of Marawi, the threat of Islamic extremism remains a major concern in Mindanao. The Guardian reported last year that there are an estimated 40 to 100 foreign fighters who have travelled to Mindanao to provide training and galvanise Isis support. This was reiterated in a document submitted to the Philippine supreme court this week that states that more than 200 villages in Mindanao are under threat from Isis-inspired groups who have the support of a growing number of foreign fighters.
“There is consistent influx of foreign terrorists in the country who are primary responsible for the conduct of training to local terrorist fighters, especially in making IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and motivating locals to serve as suicide bombers,” read the document filed by the office of the solicitor general in a rare public acknowledgement by the government of the level of threat still posed by Islamic militants in Mindanao.
The new region of Bangsamoro replaces an existing poverty-wracked autonomous region with a larger, better-funded and more powerful entity. An annual grant, estimated at $1.3bn, is to be set aside to bolster development.
Another vote is scheduled on 6 February for additional areas that might want to join the new Muslim region.
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