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Philippines Voters: No Expansion of Muslim Region - 2001-08-15

In the Philippines, early voting returns from nearly a dozen southern provinces show most residents do not want to join an expanded autonomous Muslim region. The government staged the plebiscite in the hopes of helping end 30 years of Muslim separatist violence in the mostly-Roman Catholic Philippines.

The chairman of the Philippines Commission on Elections, Alfredo Benipayo, told reporters, based on early returns, it seems votes against expanding Muslim autonomy are overwhelming. Eleven southern provinces in the southern Philippines voted Tuesday on whether to join four predominantly Muslim provinces in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, known as ARMM.

The government of the predominantly Christian nation offered autonomy hoping to ease pressure by Muslim guerrillas for a separate state in the region. President Gloria Arroyo campaigned for the measure, calling it an intelligent alternative to secession.

Presidential Spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao told VOA Wednesday rejection of autonomy is not a setback. "It's the people's voice. It's the decision of residents of those areas in Mindanao," he said.

The Autonomous Region was created as part of a peace agreement five years ago with the Moro National Liberation Front, which abandoned its secessionist struggle in exchange for power sharing with the central government.

The Philippine government is holding peace talks with another break-away group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but this group boycotted the plebiscite saying it did not grant enough self rule. The presidential spokesman said the outcome of the plebiscite will not affect these negotiations.

Officials say voters in the predominantly Christian areas appear to have rejected the proposal to join the ARMM. But they say early returns in Muslim parts of Basilan Island appear to favor joining the Autonomous Region.

Guerrillas of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim group are active on this island and have taken a score of hostages, including Americans. But the Philippine government refuses to negotiate with them saying they are criminals who are using kidnapping to extort money.