Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Davao City, in the southern island of Mindanao on February 9, 2018. Photo: AFP

A powerful car bomb exploded at a military checkpoint in Basilan province in the southern Philippines on Tuesday morning, killing at least 11 persons, including five government troops, Filipino officials said.

The deadly blast came less than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which seeks to establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Basilan is part of the ARMM, an impoverished, war-torn region in the south and home to many minority Muslim Filipinos.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), refused to characterize the incident in Lamitan City as a suicide attack, saying that authorities are still conducting investigations.

However, Lamitan City Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay said the lethal attack was the first case of suicide bombing in his city, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Besana denied speculation that the car explosion could be the handiwork of those opposed to the BOL, a measure many hoped would bring just and lasting peace to the troubled south. “This is an act of terrorism,” Besana said in a phone interview with Asia Times.

The bomb exploded inside the car and shattered parts of the vehicle became shrapnels, said Besana in explaining the death of the five government troops who belonged to the 9th Scout Ranger Company.

After flagging down the vehicle, the troops surrounded it after being tipped off that a bomb was inside, Besana said. Five civilians and the driver of the car, whom authorities considered a suspect, were also killed in the explosion, the official said. Two other militiamen were wounded, according to a Westmincom statement.

Besana declined to blame any specific group for the lethal blast, saying they still have to determine the signature of the explosive.

Soldiers stand guard on a road as they are deployed to remote villages in the southern Philippines in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Stringer 

He noted, however, that Basilan had become “peaceful” lately due to the series of surrenders of Abu Sayyaf Group members in the province. Abu Sayyaf Group has declared allegiance to Islamic State and is one of the region’s more active insurgent groups. This year 55 Abu Sayyaf Group members have surrendered to authorities, Besana said.

Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega, WestMinCom’s commander, vowed to exhaust every available resource at his disposal to immediately identify the perpetrators so that the people of Basilan will have the peace that they truly deserve.

The explosion came in the wake of a warning that Islamic armed groups and local politicians could spoil the party kindled by the BOL, which would test the mettle of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in public governance once the new political entity is put in place.

Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, stressed that the BOL is not the “magic pill that can give a panacea to the multifaceted problems of armed conflicts in Mindanao.”

“Challenges will come from local politicians and armed groups opposed to BOL,” he told Asia Times.

The new Bangsamoro political entity will be established once the BOL is ratified in a still to be scheduled plebiscite.

Besides ARMM, which is composed of the Mindanao provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the plebiscite will also include 39 villages in North Cotabato, six towns in Lanao del Norte, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela.

In a statement on Tuesday, Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza said there “is a bigger work to be done with the passage of the BOL.”

“Hopefully, the Bangsamoro Organic Law will address the grievances of the Bangsamoro (people). Will everything be well and OK? No, sir. We may have reached a milestone but it still has to be worked out,” he said. Dureza did not comment about the deadly explosion in Basilan as off 2pm on Tuesday.

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, during the front’s consultative assembly on Sunday attended by tens of thousands of members and supporters in Maguindanao province, said their biggest challenge after the BOL is ratified will be meeting the expectations of the Moro people, noting most of them have no experience in public governance.

Banlaoi said that local politicians could spoil Duterte’s signing of the BOL last week, which he noted “is a very important step to the Bangsamoro people’s long journey to peace in Mindanao.”

Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, of Cotabato City, the seat of the ARMM regional government, said in an earlier television interview that her constituents would reject inclusion in the new Bangsamoro region if the plebiscite were held today. Cotabato City twice refused to join the ARMM.

Lanao del Norte 1st District Representative Mohamad Khalid Dimaporo recently vowed to question before the Supreme Court the inclusion of 39 villages in North Cotabato and six towns in Lanao del Norte in the proposed autonomous region.

Zamboanga City Representative Celso Lobregat also earlier said that some provisions of the BOL, including the s0-called block grant, “were unconstitutional.”

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces raise their fists during a show of force in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

In 2008, Lobregat was among those who challenged the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which the Supreme Court eventually declared as unconstitutional.

The botched signing of the MOA-AD, which would have established the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, triggered a massive war in 2008 that displaced 600,000 civilians, the single largest internal displacement worldwide that year.

Banlaoi said these local politicians must be convinced that they can benefit from the peace dividends of the BOL.

He also noted that BOL can be used as leverage by Islamic State-aligned groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Abu Dar Group (the remnant of the Maute Group) to advance Islamic extremism in the south.

It’s still unclear if any of the groups were responsible for today’s bomb, though it occurred in an area where Abu Sayyaf is known to be active. The BOL could attract some foreign fighters to come to the south to oppose what they perceive as “cooptation with the infidels,” Banlaoi said, referring to the MILF’s peace deal with the government.

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