By Jaime Laude And James Mananghaya
Saturday, August 9, 2008
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is deploying more troops in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to ensure peaceful and orderly elections on Monday.
AFP chief Gen. Alexander Yano ordered troops from Luzon and the Visayas to move to Mindanao “to give priority to security operations in the ARMM elections.”
AFP Public Information Office (PIO) chief Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres Jr. did not say how many additional soldiers were sent to the ARMM or if soldiers were deputized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to perform poll duties.
Seventy-eight candidates are vying for 23 positions in the ARMM elections.
Of the number, seven are running for regional governor while five are aspiring for the vice gubernatorial post.
The elections will also put to test the government’s poll automation program.
The troop deployment came in the wake of threats by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to disrupt the elections in ARMM after the group and the government failed to sign the ancestral domain agreement.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner said they would field about 600 troops from the 68th Infantry Battalion based in Quezon and the 46th IB in Samar.
The AFP has also activated special Task Force Halalan 2008, under AFP vice chief Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna, to oversee the military’s security operations in ARMM.
But some quarters in the military criticized the deployment of more troops in ARMM, saying that there are already enough forces capable of thwarting attempts to disrupt the Aug. 11 polls.
They also expressed fear that soldiers could again directly interfere in the conduct of the elections in the guise of providing security for political warlords “known for their influence over the military.”
“What happened to the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the Department of National Defense (DND) and the (Comelec) limiting the role of the military in the conduct of every poll exercise?” a military insider asked.
Yano earlier announced that the MOA forged by then Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. with the Comelec was aimed at isolating the military from engaging in political partisan activities.
It limits the role of the military to providing area security, setting up checkpoints and chokepoints to enforce the Comelec gun ban during and after elections, and barring soldiers from polling places.
The agreement also prohibits the use of military assets in transporting election paraphernalia before and after elections.
Despite this, several military helicopters were seen ferrying materials for Monday’s elections.
Yano said the AFP, the Comelec, and the Philippine National Police (PNP) will secure voting centers and machines as well as the 1.6 million voters who will troop to polling centers.
Disrupting polls serious offense in Islam
In Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, peace advocates urged the MILF not to embark on anything that can disrupt elections in the ARMM.
The MILF had earlier asked for the postponement of elections, apprehensive that the three-year tenure of elected officials would affect its projected timeframe for the implementation of a final peace with the government.
Members of the ARMM’s Madaris Education Bureau, some of them theologians trained in Cairo, Egypt; Tripoli, Libya; Fez, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, said disrupting the electoral exercises, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, is a serious offense in Islam.
“We’re optimistic that neither the MILF nor the Moro National Liberation Front will do anything to disrupt the ARMM polls,” said Ustadz Farid Solaiman Adas.
Protestant and Catholic preachers in Central Mindanao have also asked the MILF to restrain its forces on Monday from moving out of their enclaves with their guns.
The Supreme Court restrained last Monday government’s chief negotiator Rodolfo Garcia from signing the MOA-AD, aborting its supposed finalization by the GRP and MILF this month in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
“It would be disadvantageous for the MILF to do anything that can affect the supposed peaceful conduct of the ARMM elections on Aug. 11,” a Tausug school official said.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said their forces on the ground have religiously been adhering to the ceasefire and that they would not embark on maneuvers that could derail the polls.
Comelec sees peaceful polls
Despite pockets of hostility in Mindanao, the Comelec remains confident that Monday’s election in ARMM will be peaceful and successful.
Comelec Chairman Jose Melo said the poll body sees no reason that could prevent the peaceful conduct of the first ever automated elections in the country.
“Generally, the situation in ARMM is back to normal so except for minor violent incidents that may occur, we do not see any problem during the ARMM elections,” Melo said.
But he admitted that the Comelec was apprehensive that the hostilities in North Cotabato might spill over to neighboring provinces during canvassing of votes.
He, however, noted that the current situation showed that only a limited number of towns in North Cotabato may be affected by the ongoing fighting between the government and the MILF.
Melo said the Comelec now expects at least 50 percent of registered voters in ARMM to participate in the elections.
“Even low turnout of voters cannot result in failure of elections. Winners can still be declared even if only few people voted,” Melo stressed.
“What concerns us is not the low turnout, but the fact that if only few people voted, we will not be able to fully test the system of automated elections,” he added.
More than the armed conflict, Melo said the Comelec is concerned with the difficulty in transporting the machines and ballot boxes to the region’s far-flung areas.
The Comelec chief said the cost of transporting the automated machines and ballot boxes accounted for the larger bulk of the ARMM poll expenses.
Melo, however, assured that as of yesterday, most of the automated machines are already placed and sealed in counting centers.
Comelec Commissioner Lucinito Tagle said the situation in Sulu is normal but there may be some delay in the transport of machines in some areas, considering that it’s an island province and difficult to reach.
The Comelec said polling centers and counting centers in Sheriff Kabunsuan have been fully secured.
“Everything and everyone seems to be cooperating for the successful conduct of the ARMM polls, so we are urging the voters there to go out, look and try to use the new voting and counting machines,” Melo said.
Sulu recorded the highest number of candidates for regional assembly with 23 aspirants for the province’s two districts, followed by Lanao del Sur with 18, and Basilan with 14.
Tawi-Tawi and Shariff Kabunsuan have eight candidates each for the regional assembly.
“We expect many voters to come out and participate in the election because most of the candidates are their relatives,” Melo said.
He added that curiosity over the new voting and counting machines would also encourage a majority of the registered voters in ARMM to participate in the elections.
The Comelec chief said winners in the ARMM polls are expected to be known within 48 hours.
‘ARMM to start modern voting’
Sen. Richard Gordon called on the people of ARMM to exercise their right of suffrage and support the automation of the upcoming elections on Monday.
Gordon, author of the Automated Elections Law, said the Muslims should be the ones to show how modern voting could happen, stressing the threat of conflict in Mindanao should not derail the elections.
Senators do not see anymore reason to postpone the ARMM polls to give way to the peace talks between the government and the MILF as the signing of the agreement on ancestral domain had been bungled due to various oppositions and a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court.
“This is our golden opportunity to restore our people’s trust and confidence in our electoral process. Our holding of automated elections in ARMM will more quickly build a foundation for peace and cut deeper inroads for development, which is a core issue of conflict in the southern Philippines,” Gordon said.
“With fast, fair, and accurate elections, we can be more certain of political stability in the ARMM,” Gordon added as news reports indicated that the MILF had withdrawn its fighters from nine villages it allegedly occupied in North Cotabato.
Gordon noted that in other countries, elections push through despite ongoing peace negotiations. He cited that even in war-torn Iraq, Iraqis were able to conduct peaceful and successful elections.
“Holding the automated elections will fulfill the dreams of our countrymen of a true democracy where they would be able to choose the right elective officials and where elections will be fair, honest and clean. This continues on to the 2010 elections and we will have better elections,” he said.
Areas of concern
Deputy Director General Emmanuel Carta, PNP deputy chief for operations, said they have started coordinating with officials of the local government units and other organizations in ARMM to help them guard the election proceedings.
Carta said they have deployed two uniformed policemen in each of the 1,919 polling precincts in two cities and 113 municipalities in ARMM.
Records showed Tawi-Tawi has one barangay considered an election area of immediate concern (EAIC), while 32 barangays considered as election areas of concern (EAC).
In Basilan, there are seven EAIC and 60 EAC; Sulu, three EAIC and 177 EAC; Maguindanao, 10 EAIC-271 EAC; Lanao del Sur, 18-145; and Sheriff Kabunsuan 10-202.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. said they are hoping for orderly and peaceful elections on Aug. 11, where sufficient forces have been deployed.
PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome said government authorities are continuously discussing security operations for the elections.
‘Group sabotaging ARMM polls’
The United Opposition (UNO) said a certain group is sabotaging the elections in ARMM.
UNO spokesman Adel Tamano, however, would not name the group.
Tamano personally met with his province mates in the ARMM yesterday to explain the opposition’s stand on the aborted MOA on ancestral domain between the government and the MILF.
“Elections are the lifeblood of democracy and so we ask everyone to pray for peaceful elections in ARMM on Monday,” Tamano said.
He said “every Filipino must work to ensure that the ARMM elections will be safe and clean.”
“We should resist all attempts to sabotage the holding of free and honest elections,” he said.
Tamano cited that Malacañang earlier expressed its intention to suspend the ARMM elections, explaining that it would hinder the negotiations with the MILF in creating a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (JBE).
He said that the creation of the BJE is a backdoor effort by the Palace to open the possibility of amending the Constitution.
Earlier, the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) stopping the government and the MILF from signing the MOA on ancestral domain.
The High Court granted the petition filed by the officials of North Cotabato, led by Gov. Jesus Sacdalan, Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, and Zamboanga City, questioning the legality of the MOA between the government and MILF, which, they claimed, would lead to the expansion of the coverage of ARMM.
The report saying that North Cotabato would be included in the expanded ARMM came as a shock or surprise to the people of the province.
It has caused alarm and concern to the people allegedly because of the vast powers and authority granted to the JBE, which, petitioners said, “is almost tantamount to ARMM becoming an independent state.” – With Mayen Jaymalin, John Unson, Aurea Calica, Jose Rodel Clapano(PStar)