By Benyamen Cabuntalan
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (AA) - The acting governor of the southern Philippine province of North Cotabato officially handed over 63 barangays, or villages, on Wednesday that opted to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) during plebiscites held earlier this year.
Vice Governor Emmylou Talino-Mendoza led other provincial officials in the handover of the villages at a ceremony held at the Shariff Kabunsuan Complex, during which a symbolic “key” was presented to BARMM chief minister Ahod “Murad” Ibrahim.
"Today is not just the official turnover of the 63 barangays to the Bangsamoro government. Today is about opening another chapter in the long history of our people in this historic province. Today, we see a bridge that reconnects the 63 barangays to its Bangsamoro homeland. Today is all about the people," Ibrahim said in a speech.
BARMM Minister of the Interior and Local Government Naguib Sinarimbo said the handover was a reunification from the former Cotabato empire.
The Cotabato empire was established as a province of the Philippines in 1914 that existed until its dissolution in 1973 through a presidential decree. It was then divided into the provinces of Maguindano, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and (North) Cotabato.
“This is not just an opportunity to connect with the new Bangsamoro region but more importantly to see yourself as a connector to your neighbors in North Cotabato. This is why during the recent earthquake in North Cotabato, we did not have second thoughts to immediately bring our rescue team,” Sinarimbo said during the ceremony.
Talino-Mendoza said she is hopeful that the turnover is just the beginning of government efforts in achieving lasting peace and development in Mindanao and asked the Bangsamoro government to take care of the barangays.
Bangsamoro Muslims, long deprived of freedom under the U.S. and the modern Philippine state, were granted autonomy under historic plebiscites held on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6 this year in southern Mindanao.