Text by Artha Kira Paredes, Photos and video by Amiel Mark Cagayan, VERA Files
DATU SAUDI AMPATUAN, Maguindanao— The hearings of the Election Registration Board (ERB) will push through in Maguindanao until the scheduled completion by September, even if the ongoing conflict persists.
Maguindanao Provincial Election Supervisor lawyer Udtog M. Tago said all Election Officers will be looking into and assessing the peace and order conditions in their respective towns.
Should the situation be like in Datu Saudi Ampatuan where the Commission on Election (Comelec) office is being use as a temporary shelter for evacuees, he said, "Pwedeng maghanap ng ibang space (We can look for another venue)."
In case some ERB members are unable to pass through roads because of security threats, "pwedeng mag-designate ng safe place (we can designate a safe place), he said.
Last week, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mindanao told media that 45,000 people have been displaced since clashes between the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Philippine Army broke out the night of August 5. BIFF was part of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) until it broke away.
Displaced families are from the towns of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak, Datu Unsay, Datu Hoffer Ampatuan and Guindulungan.
In this town alone, a building in the local government unit compound that serves as the office of the town council, the Comelec and the Human Resource section has been transformed into a temporary home to some 58 families of internally displaced persons or bakwits from Barangay Kabingi.
Ismael Silungan, whose house was shot at eight times around 11 p.m. of August 5, fled his home past midnight with his wife and four children aged five to 12. A corn farmer, he said he has not visited his field since the clashes started.
Nandang Limba, also among the bakwits in the LGU compound, said she used to gather woods in the forest to sell but has not been able to earn a living since. Most of their belongings have been destroyed, she said. Her family, including three of her children, now relies on rations and relief goods from local officials.
Lines of makeshift tents fashioned from bamboo and madre cacao pegs with rice sack roofs and blanket walls stand along the highway. At the moment, this is what other bakwits call home. It does not protect them from the rough elements, especially in the afternoons when it usually rains.
OIC ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman said the conflict in Maguindanao is already "towards (its) end" and will probably be finished before the postponed ERB hearings.
On Saturday, media also quoted ARMM political leaders and the military saying that bakwits can now return home safely.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that counts Maguindanao among its five provinces held a 10-day general voters' registration July after congress and senate passed Joint Resolution No 3 that stated their voters' book was padded because of ghost voters. The ERB that will hear objections to the applications before approval shall be held on the weekdays of September 20 to 26.
Tago said that at least three oppositions have already been filed at the provincial Comelec office but that these are "very general." He said one of the objections is on hakot or transporting voters to registration centers by the hundreds but that it was not specific enough in a sense that it did not mention particular persons involved.
He said the conflict does not have much effect on the filing of objections because it is the work of lawyers.
Based on ARMM Comelec records as of July 21, Maguindanao had 536,356 individuals who enlisted as voters during the recent registrations. The tally is lower by 30,000 than the number of previous voters
The non-government organization Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms, Inc (C-CARE), has observed an increase in the number of voters in the towns known to be bailiwicks of incumbent governor Ismael Mangudadatu and a decrease in the towns identified as strongholds of his political opponents, the Ampatuans.
Maguindanao has the highest voting population among the five provinces in the region.
(ARMM WATCH is a project of VERA Files in partnership with MindaNews, The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")