Cotabato City a contested area ahead of Bangsamoro plebiscite

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Cotabato City (CNN Philippines, January 18) — Cotabato City is seen as among possible hotly contested areas during the plebiscite on Monday for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

The local government has opposed the city's possible inclusion in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). It did not join the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) during the last plebiscite.

Pro-Bangsamoro groups want the city to be part of the new political entity, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front calling it a "crown jewel." Cotabato City has the highest economic potential among the proposed Bangsamoro areas. Its location is also strategic.

"'Pag tinatanong naman sila, bakit ayaw niyo? Wala naman silang categorical na sagot where the provisions of the BOL is concerned," Maguindanao First District Rep. Bai Sandra Sema explained.

Sema has campaigned for the "yes" vote. On the other hand, Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi has openly opposed the city's inclusion in the new Bangsamoro region.

"'Yung decision ko specifically to support the no for inclusion of Cotabato City, hindi ko sariling desisyon ito. I consulted practically all the stakeholders of Cotabato City," Guiani-Sayadi told CNN Philippines on Thursday.

[Translation: My decision to specifically support the no for Cotabato City's inclusion, I did not come up with it by myself. consulted practically all the stakeholders of Cotabato City.]

She added her going "all out" for a no vote was representative of the people's will. She urged her constituents to exercise their right to vote.

The bombing outside a Cotabato City shopping mall in December 2018 that killed two people had Sema and Guiani-Sayadi raising speculations who may be behind the attack. They also raised concerns whether or not it is plebiscite-related.

"Sorry, what is the reason of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) for doing that? When MILF is trying to get people to support them. Mali yung analysis," Sema said.

Guiani-Sayadi said there was a supposed threat from an MILF leader known as Kumander Wahid Tundok that came out just before the blast.

"How could you explain the video of Kumander Wahid Tundok. See? You may say one thing, but there's proof to the other," she said.

Both Sema and Guiani-Sayadi said their supporters are facing intimidation and harassment.

Sema will challenge Guiani-Sayadi in the midterm election, prompting some officials to say that local politics is taking away the spotlight from the plebiscite.

"The people of Cotabato knows more than that. You cannot actually dictate to them, what to do, because they know what is happening, and what has happened to Cotabato City," Guiani-Sayadi said.

Sema said, "For now, Cotabato City will decide not only what is good for them, but what is good for the country."

They said they will respect the outcome of the referendum regardless of how it could affect their candidacies in May.

Voters in Cotabato City, Isabela City in Basilan, and ARMM will decide the fate of BARMM on January 21. A second plebiscite for Lanao del Norte excluding Iligan City, North Cotabato, and the 28 areas which petitioned for inclusion into BARMM would be held on February 6.