The campaign period for the BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) Plebiscite has a lot of twists and turns for us. If I were to summarize some of the lessons I learned during the campaign period, it would be the following:
1. ‘WHAT WORKS’ OVERRIDES ‘WHAT’S RIGHT’
We may have an ideal way of persuading the public through information drives, etc. But you will still be confronted by the reality: the current Bangsamoro (or even the Filipino) demographic is still not ready for this given their intellectual capacity. We may complain about how politicians put their faces and names larger than the YES vote they campaign. We may complain about how people use religion by making a YES vote synonymous to salvation and a NO vote a sin. But that’s reality: we are still not politically mature. The ordinary people are still struggling to grasp salient features of the BOL and do not have time to understand it. At the end of the day, the Plebiscite is not a Board Exam. Advocates only need a YES or NO vote. Those politicking? It works! It gets people to say YES. That’s what matters. Frustrated why most people don’t engage in the intellectual discourse you want to happen? Let’s not whine. Let’s enlighten. Yes, it’s a slow process. But we have to deal with it.
2. THE GAME CHANGES WHEN HEROES AND VILLAINS COME IN
The Plebiscite is not supposed to talk about people, it’s supposed to talk about an idea. But popular people are just irresistible not to talk about. Again, it’s because of our current demographics. It’s easier to mock, to praise, and to justify your YES vote according to the power, accomplishments, or even charisma of those who back it up. It’s messy, but that’s just the only convenient way the collective Bangsamoro or Filipino people, in general, can talk about issues.
3. CAMPAIGNING FOR THE PLEBISCITE IS A TRADE FAIR, NOT A DEBATE CHAMPIONSHIP
During the campaign period, I saw a lot of tricks used by people to get people to say YES or NO. From spreading fear through fake news to threatening to cut the flow of resources between cities and municipalities. Some mocked how poor people could become by being associated with the Bangsamoro Region, some used it to justify why it should be settled through unity once and for all. But what will be counted as historic are those who were able to knock people’s hearts: the gathering of the people who suffered for decades; house-to-house campaigns of women walking on the streets under the heat of the sun; the old and poor Bangsamoro people who have nothing to give but cold water in support of those who rally for a YES vote; and waving the Bangsamoro Flag beside the Philippine Flag on boats reaching the farthest and poorest residents of the city along rivers that surrounds it. Those are the ones who matter. After all, the Plebiscite is a game of persuasion, not a war of reasoning.
4. SOCIAL MEDIA CLAMOR STILL DOES NOT REFLECT THE TRUE VOICE OF THE ELECTORATE
I remember the clamor of social media towards Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago during the 2016 presidential elections, but she turned out to have the least number of votes. The people we see in social media do not represent the poor majority who do not even have phones to speak their minds but are able to vote. Three years later, this is still true. We see overwhelming YES and NO comments, but how sure are we if they’re even residents, registered voters, or those who are really going to vote? We’re not even sure if those comments are even screened. Also, Facebook page admins can hide comments that negate what they campaign for, and what you read are those that they want you to see. So maybe spending your energy reacting to them, which do not really influence the result of the vote, is not worth it after all.
5. THE BOL PLEBISCITE SPED UP THE POLITICAL MATURITY OF THE BANGSAMORO
In a matter of months, people have gone from being clueless to being able to discuss heavy concepts like fiscal autonomy, political entity, justice systems, inclusive governance, parliamentary system, federalism, right to self-determination, constitutionality, and devolution of powers; because you need to immerse yourself with the issue before you can you say can YES or NO. For intellectuals, the concepts that they learned from books now make sense. For the ordinary people, it brought them new perspectives of how they understand the Bangsamoro struggle. In a matter of months, they went from thinking of it only as a path towards ‘Muslim-rule’ to realizing it’s not that simple, as they began discussing the economy, geopolitics, good governance, and history. And that’s good! The Bangsamoro people are evolving from being passive residents to being active citizens.
6. DON’T PLAY YOUR OPPONENTS’ GAME, LET THEM PLAY YOURS
I remember the eagle’s tale, where eagles pick up snakes and bring them to the skies. It makes them weak. One of the highlights of the campaign for the Plebiscite is the rise of hate pages against the Bangsamoro cause, using strategies irresistible to most people: Populism. They trigger people by spewing out hateful allegations. This triggers the natural instinct of people to correct it, by screen-capping them, shaming them. But they’re still going to benefit from it because that’s just what they want: Attention. In this game, I learned how to use their own strategy to steal the attention they have and use it against them by forming the campaign #CotabatenYES. Because aside from agitating comments, there’s another way to get attention: creative visuals and visual hierarchy. Perks of being a former teacher, I guess? It made them abandon their established pages, and create a new one (Cotabaten-No) with the intent to confuse the people, not knowing they have started from scratch.
7. IT’S NOT ONLY ABOUT YES VS. NO, IT’S ALSO ABOUT ‘I CARE’ VS. ‘DON’T CARE’
The people who made this Plebiscite historic are those who cared during the campaign. There are non-Bangsamoro who are not even part of the Plebiscite but expressed support for it. Others could’ve voted but they were out of the BCE (Bangsamoro Core Territory) or even the country, working or studying, but the organized their communities there and expressed support to their fellow Bangsamoro here. Some who are Bangsamoro could have utilized their power and influence to take part in the campaign, or at least represent what they supposed to represent, but they chose not to. Maybe they have personal reasons or simply do not care. Whatever it is, in this historic checkpoint of Philippine history, those who actively engaged during the campaign have something to tell their kids about with pride.
8. THE GENERAL FILIPINO PEOPLE ARE STILL BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND THE BANGSAMORO STRUGGLE, DESPITE 100,000+ LIVES SACRIFICED TO COME UP WITH THIS LAW
I feel both happy and sad about this. Recent national news about the progression of the BOL Plebiscite gained hateful and false comments of ordinary Filipino towards the Bangsamoro, saying it’s separatism, Shari’ah Law imposed to all, among others. They really do not know what’s going on. Maybe they are excited about other things, like who’s going to be the next member of Sexbomb. But I’m happy some of my non-Bangsamoro friends are expressing their interest, curiosity, and support to our cause. I will never forget you guys. 💚
Today’s the Plebiscite. Whatever the result is, we have tried our best. We will recall this moment in the future and smile, maybe not because we won, but because we did and witnessed things we thought we wouldn’t. One way or another, the Philippines will gain something from this.
This Plebiscite will be one of the highlights of 21st-century history, and we will be proud we took our part in it.
Good luck, Bangsamoro!
About the Author:
Rex Alon is a Bangsamoro-Maguindanaon young professional in Cotabato City who manages Cotabaten-YES, a pro-BOL campaign page countering hate-based social media campaigns against BOL in Cotabato City. He was a Biology Instructor at Ateneo de Davao University, Special Science Teacher at the Philippine Science High School Southern Mindanao, and a Fellow of the U.S. International Exchange. He currently works as a Training Specialist at the ARMM Development Academy.