MANILA - More than 2.8 million Muslims cast their votes on Monday (Jan 21) in a referendum meant to carve out their own territory in the restive southern part of the Philippines and end nearly half a century of separatist violence in a region plagued by poverty and Islamist extremism.
A clear "yes" vote is widely expected, despite opposition from a number of Muslim politicians who have refused to cede power to a new political entity that will control a third of Mindanao, the Philippines' second-biggest island.
The vote caps years of turbulence as the government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main rebel group, tried to hammer out a peace deal to end the violence that had left over 120,000 dead in its wake and displaced some two million people.
"We are looking at a landslide victory of the 'yes' votes in at least four provinces and two cities," MILF peace panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal told the online news site Rappler.
MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told CNN Philippines: "If there is no manipulation, no intimidation, there will be overwhelming approval."
Results are expected to be out by Friday (Jan 25).
Security officials said the referendum was uneventful overall, despite reports of "flying voters" and harassment of poll officials.
"There's zero casualty. There's no violence… It went well. There's no problem. It's orderly," Major-General Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Army's 6th infantry Division, told reporters.
The referendum seeks to rally support behind a law, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte last July (2018), that will create a self-administered, parliamentary region known as the Bangsamoro, or "nation of Moros", by 2022.
The area covers parts of Mindanao and a chain of dozens of small islands to the west notorious for piracy and banditry. About five million Muslims live in the region which, although rich in mineral resources, is the poorest of the 16 regions in the vast archipelago.
The Bangsamoro will replace an existing autonomous region with a larger, better-funded and more powerful entity. Three-fourths of tax takings in the region will go to this entity which is also expected to receive some US$1.3 billion in an annual grant to aid development.
The MILF has promised to decommission a third of its fighters, estimated at 30,000, and weapons after the referendum.
Although many powers will be devolved, the central government will keep control of security.
Former MILF vanguards, including Mr Murad, 71, are expected to run for top posts in the Bangsamaro in 2022, and, once in power, rein in a new wave of Islamist extremism sweeping across Mindanao.
Radical Muslims have refused to join peace talks between the government and the MILF, opting instead to embrace the wider, global agenda of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Most belong to smaller outfits like the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has capitalised on decades of instability in Mindanao to generate tens of millions of dollars from piracy and ransom payments.
But, in a demonstration of the scale of the trouble they can cause, about a thousand militants stormed and took control of half of the southern city of Marawi in May 2017 for five months in what turned into the Philippines' biggest security crisis in years.
By the time the fighting ended, more than 1,100 people, most of them militants, were dead and nearly half a million displaced from their homes.
The government and the MILF are hoping self-rule will lead to growth in the Bangsamoro region that, in turn, will marginalise radicals.
"It offers the best chance at finally delivering a political solution to the alienation of the Moro community from the Philippine state… seriously degrading the mutually beneficial ties between Moro insurgent and terrorist groups and regional and global terrorist groups," said Dr Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' Yusof Ishak Institute.
Mr Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based defence and security analyst, said victory for the "yes" side would have to be decisive.
"They have to get more than 50 per cent plus one, so that the mandate is clear, so that the leaders will have enough political capital to rally and mobilise support," he said.
Another political analyst, Mr Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institution for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, however, saw the plebiscite as "just a small step to a much longer process", given diverse expectations for the Bangsamoro region and residual resistance from some armed quarters.