By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK - Nearly three million minority Muslims in southern Philippines voted on Monday in a referendum on autonomy, a move that is aimed at ending decades of deadly conflict and granting them greater control over their land and natural resources.
Residents in Mindanao region are being asked if they back a plan by separatists and the government to create a self-administered area known as Bangsamoro, or "nation of Moros", the name Spanish colonialists gave to the area's Muslim inhabitants.
A clear "yes" vote is widely expected, which would grant executive, legislature and fiscal powers to the region.
"This is a very significant vote that will lead to a participatory government that will ensure everyone is heard, and no one is left out," said Rufa Cagoco-Guiam, a conflicts specialist at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute Foundation.
"It recognises Bangsamoro people as a people with a distinct historical and cultural identity, and respects their right to their ancestral domain and resources, and their right to govern themselves," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Mindanao, the Philippines' second-biggest island, has mineral deposits worth about $300 billion, or 40 percent of the country's reserves, according to government estimates.
It also has among the highest rates of poverty after decades of separatist conflict, which has killed about 120,000 people and forced more than two million from their homes, according to human rights activists.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has backed the new region, saying it will bring peace and wealth in Mindanao, his home island.
The results of Monday's vote are due to be declared later this week.
A "yes" vote would mean Bangsamoro will have complete authority over land reforms and indigenous peoples' rights.
Land rights campaigners say tens of thousands of indigenous people have been forced from their ancestral land by the insurgency, as well as expansion by logging and mining companies.
The Philippines is the deadliest country in Asia for land and environment activists, according to Manila-based human rights group Karapatan.
Mindanao accounted for most of the killings last year amidst a government crackdown after martial law was imposed in 2017 following a deadly siege of Marawi city by Islamist militants.
Conflict over land in Mindanao was one of the major triggers for violence even before the siege, say campaigners, who have called for a community-led effort to rebuild Marawi.
"The new region will give priority to Marawi's redevelopment, as the Bangsamoro parliament will have the power to allocate funds for projects it deems urgent and important," said Amir Mawallil, a community youth leader.
"(It's) not just about addressing the peace problem in the region, but also about giving justice to the Moro people and indigenous peoples," he said by phone.