TOP military and police officials in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) admitted Tuesday that keeping peace in the region during the May polls is a "big challenge."

During the 3rd Election Security Summit of the Citizens Coalition for Armm Electoral Reforms Inc. (Citizens Care), the officials said all of the Armm provinces are Election Watchlist Areas (ERAs).

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Eastern Mindanao Command unified command staff Colonel Yerson Depayso said although the Armm election in 2008 used automation, this May poll is perceived as "a new challenge for law enforcing authorities."

"We still really do not know what will happen. Expectedly, it will be a big challenge but we are constantly planning for the elections," Depayso said at Grand Regal Hotel.

Philippine National Police (PNP)-Armm Regional Operations and Plans Division OIC Superintendent Siegfriedo Ramos, for his part, stressed in a report Armm's current political situation and the PNP's plans and assessment.

"Armm remains volatile due to the monitored intense political rivalry between incumbent Basilan Governor Jum Akbar against Anak Mindanao Party-list Representative Mujiv Hataman, between Giv Bombit Adiong and former mayor of Marawi City Solitario Ali in the province of Lanao del Sur, between Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan and Congressman Munir Arbison, and between Mangudadatu and Sinsuat clans of Maguindanao," Ramos said.

In PNP-Armm's assessment, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao have two partisan armed groups (PAGs) each, Basilan has four, Tawi-Tawi has seven, and Sulu has 10.

Tawi-tawi province is perceived to be peaceful, Ramos said.

"In our assessment, the political atmosphere is perceived to be stable but the intense political rivalries of the running candidates cannot be discounted. Other political candidates may use their PAGs, guns, goons and gold to ensure victory," Ramos said.

He added that vote buying is seen to be the most common problem in the region. “The use of PAGs is seen to disrupt the honest, orderly, peaceful and credible conduct of elections.”

Ramos also said that out of Lanao del Sur's 1,155 barangays, 1,085 are categorized as election areas of concern (EAC) and 70 are election areas of immediate concern (EIAC). Out of Maguindanao's 481 barangays, 388 are EACs and 93 are EIACs, while out of Basilan's 210 barangays, 164 are EACs and 46 are EAICs.

In Sulu's 410 barangays, 341 are EACs while 69 are EAICs. All of Tawi-Tawi's 202 barangays, on the other hand, are categorized as EACs but none are considered EAIC.

Ramos said no election-related violence has occurred within the month of January, but so far as the gun ban violations, the PNP-Armm has confiscated 22 firearms and arrested 21 persons.

Ramos assured that the police in Armm will prepare for the elections by following a redeployment plan of PNP personnel during the elections; coordinating conference with election stakeholders; shaping up security operations; and conducting massive information on the ground to negate threat groups to illegally influence the conduct of elections.

The official also emphasized that PNP-Armm will continue coordinating with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) relative to the delivery and retrieval of elections documents, supplies, forms, paraphernalia and equipments.

 

"To ensure voter’s safely and freely exercise right of suffrage from any force and/or intimidation, we will tighten security measures to all polling centers and establish checkpoint operation 50 meters away from the polling centers on the election day until the elections is closed," Ramos said.

He said they will also secure all established polling and canvassing centers and deploy 5,578 police including the reserve personnel if possible upon the urgency of deployment.

“Also, there will be available hotlines and action centers to fast track information/incidents reports in relation to the holding of National and Local Elections," Ramos said.

Depayso and Ramos spoke in response to what will be law enforcement's role during the elections that has been among the concerns of Citizens Care, a coalition of 36 non-government organizations, civil society, people's, and sectoral groups.

Participants of the summit received a precinct count optical scan demonstration and a forum on the elections from Comelec-Maguindanao election officer III Maceda Abo.

The summit as funded by the Embassy of Canada-Philippines was convened purposely for Comelec, Armed Forces of the Philippines, PNP-Armm, and civil society election monitors, like the Citizens Care, to give a report or update of what has been accomplished based on the action plan adopted during the 2nd Election Security Summit last February 25, 2008 in Cotabato City.

Citizens Care chair Salic Ibrahim said the summit's output is a concrete action plan that will outline the key issues and concerns with regard to the 2010 elections.

Citizens Care is the lead implementing agency of the Sepveem Armm Phase 3 Project funded by the United States Agency for International Development through International Foundation for Electoral System.