More than two million Filipinos flocked to polling stations this month in a historic referendum that will determine the future of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Residents of Muslim-majority regions are deciding on the establishment and precise composition of the so-called “Bangsamoro” (nation of Moros). As the first Filipino president from Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte has staked his political legacy on the successful establishment of the new political entity. Authoritative surveys and partial results suggest the referendum is likely to pass with large majority support, with the new political entity encompassing almost all Muslim-majority provinces and urban centres, including the much-prized Cotobato City. But as shown by the recent terrorist attack in Jolo, which targeted a Catholic Church and led to the death and injury of more than 100 people, there is no room for complacency. The path ahead is riddled by unimaginably difficult challenges, especially given the depth of poverty in the southern Philippines as well as the ubiquity of religious extremism in the area. The proposed political entity, officially named Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), is ambitious in its scope and objectives. It will replace the three-decades-old Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a much smaller experiment at granting political autonomy to the Moros. Will Duterte’s sharia gift bring lasting peace to southern Philippines? The ARMM is largely deemed a failure, given its limited geographical scope, covering mostly impoverished provinces dominated by the Tausug ethnic group, as well as the dearth of functioning state institutions in the area, thanks to the prevalence of vicious warlordism and limited support from the national government. The referendum has been scheduled in two phases. The first and larger one was held on January 21 across the five provinces of the ARMM region, as well as Isabela and Cotobato cities, two prosperous and cosmopolitan urban centres in the southern Philippines. The next, and much smaller, phase will be held on February 6, covering the two nearby provinces of Lanao del Norte and North Cotobato and other Muslim-populated regions that petitioned to join the BARMM. Partial and unofficial results show widespread support for BARMM, with even the “crown jewel” of Cotobato City in favour. Surveys show that 8 out of 10 Muslim Filipinos support the Bangsamoro establishment. Voters give a big ‘aye’ to Muslim self-rule in Philippines’ troubled south The BARMM is set to become geographically expansive and ethnically diverse, covering almost all Muslim-majority areas in the southern Philippines. It will grant wide-ranging autonomy to Muslim Filipinos (Moros), who have struggled for self-determination and been systematically marginalised in the Catholic-majority country throughout the centuries. The new political entity will enjoy socio-cultural independence, with complete supervision over the establishment of sharia courts for dispensation of justice. It will also enjoy significant fiscal autonomy and assistance from the national government. This is crucial given the depth of poverty and underdevelopment in Muslim-majority regions of the Philippines. According to the World Bank, per capita income in Mindanao is half that of the national average, while the ARMM’s is only a tenth of that of the industrialised national capital region. When Duterte ran for the presidency, he promised “if I become president, if Allah gives his blessing, before I die since I am old, I will leave to you all a Mindanao that is governed in peace”. Though nominally a Christian, albeit one with fraught relations with the Catholic Church, Duterte presented himself as the first “Moro” president, who would fight for the rights of marginalised Muslims and correct “historical injustices” at the hands of “imperial Manila”. Unlike his predecessors, the tough-talking Filipino president has often gone the extra mile to promote ecumenical peace between Christian and Muslims, repeatedly emphasising the shared Abrahamic roots of both faiths. Time and again, Duterte has even chanted “Allahu akbar”, most memorably in his all-important miting de avance (final rally) election speech, explaining to his Christian supporters that both faiths worshipped one and the same creator, though with different theological beliefs and cultural traditions. Once in power, Duterte expended his political capital to rally legislative support for the long-stalled Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the legal foundation for the new political entity. It was nothing short of an act of political courage, since surveys suggested that barely a third of Filipinos (including the Muslims, who constitute a tenth of the population) had favourable views on the Bangsamoro project. Duterte visits terror-hit church in Jolo The majority of Filipinos, including leading constitutionalists and jurists, remain either sceptical or outright opposed to granting Muslims greater autonomy, fearing this would lead to dismemberment of the Philippine Republic. The Supreme Court is expected to deliberate on its constitutionality. Duterte, however, has conscientiously lobbied for maximum possible support for the new political entity. As a result, the national government will allocate 5 per cent of its internal revenues, amounting to close to US$1.2 billion, to facilitate capacity building and development in the prospective Bangsamoro region. The BARMM authorities will also enjoy greater fiscal space, being required to repatriate only a quarter (as opposed to 40 per cent for other provinces) of internal revenues to the national government. They will also enjoy significant control over precious minerals and energy resources within their areas of jurisdiction. The national government, however, will maintain control over currency and law enforcement. Security in Bangsamoro, therefore, will be a largely joint effort between Bangsamoro officials and Manila, which is troubled by the presence of Islamic State-affiliated elements across Mindanao. The latest terror attack in Jolo, in the province of Sulu, the only place so far that has rejected the Bangsamoro ratification, underscores the need for vigilance and sobriety throughout the transition process. What is clear, however, is that a majority of Muslim Filipinos are more than eager to take a fateful step towards lasting peace and prosperity after more than half a century of conflict, which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.