MANILA • Citizens in the southern Philippines will vote today on a proposal to give the region greater autonomy, a move that the central government says will help end decades of violent conflict.
More than 2.8 million residents of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao are expected to vote on a law creating an expanded region called Bangsamoro, which provides more funding, a bigger revenue share and full control of its resources. Another round of voting will be held on Feb 6.
Some local politicians oppose the move, refusing to cede power over their areas to a new political entity that will control the region.
The vote is the culmination of two decades of talks aimed at ending 40 years of insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people and stifled the development of the Philippines' second-biggest island.
"The approval of this law will signal peace, and hopefully, the Bangsamoro can hitch on the coming Mindanao boom in investments," said the region's investment board chief Ishak Mastura.
President Rodrigo Duterte has campaigned for the new region, saying it will help him deliver on his election pledge to bring peace and wealth to the southern Mindanao island. The region is located on Mr Duterte's home island, and last Friday in the southern city of Cotabato, he pledged to amend economic provisions in the Constitution once the vote has passed.
"Your approval of this law will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than half a century of armed struggle in the region," Mr Duterte said. "It will also serve as a testament to your determination to bring genuine peace and development in Muslim Mindanao."
There will still be challenges for investment even if the plebiscite favours autonomy, Mr Mastura said, including poor infrastructure and high power costs. The region has the highest poverty rate in the Philippines, with more than half of its population considered poor.
Despite its problems, the autonomous Muslim region has shown some promise. Its economy grew to a record 7.3 per cent in 2017, becoming the fifth-fastest growing region and beating national economic growth of 6.7 per cent. Among the multinational companies that have operations in Mindanao are Dole Food, Nestle, and LaFargeHolcim.
Mineral deposits are valued at over US$300 billion (S$406 billion) or about 40 per cent of the nation's total mineral reserves, according to government estimates. Still, its economy remains highly agricultural, and contributes only 1 per cent to the country's total output.
"If I were an investor, I would watch out for this region," former peace adviser Teresita Deles said. "It has so much economic potential, and its development will help boost our economy further."