A recently announced agreement between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels waging a decades-old insurgency in the southern island of Mindanao paves the way for the establishment of a new autonomous region, more access for humanitarians to conflict-affected areas and an end to the cycle of failed peace deals and displacements.
"This means there will be stability of abode, with the people now able to dream and build communities without fear of evacuating again," Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman told IRIN.
"The people, as well as humanitarian actors on the ground, can now invest in long-term development."
The creation of the "Bangsamoro new autonomous political entity" by 2016 was announced by President Benigno Aquino in Manila on 7 October after five days of peace talks in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. It is expected to be formally signed on 15 October.
According to Aquino, the new political entity will replace an existing autonomous region created in 1996 which has largely been a failure due to what the president said was local corruption in handling millions of dollars poured into development programmes.
About 150,000 people have died in one of the region's longest-running insurgencies, which has left the mineral-rich island mired in poverty. Only 40 percent of children complete primary school here compared to the national average of 75 percent, while under-five mortality is three times the national rate, according to the UN Children’s Fund.
“While food insecurity and other humanitarian needs may continue in the near term,” said the World Food Programme’s representative in the Philippines, Stephen Anderson, “the peace process… gives real hope of achieving sustainable peace and development for the people of Mindanao.”
The government will retain exclusive powers over defence and security, foreign and monetary policy, as well as citizenship and naturalization. However, Aquino said, the autonomous region is guaranteed a "fair and equitable share of taxation and revenues".
MILF to respect ceasefire
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been waging a separatist rebellion since 1978, splintering from the larger Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a peace deal accepting limited autonomy from the state in 1996.
"This framework agreement paves the way for a final, enduring peace in Mindanao," Aquino said, adding that the 12,000-strong MILF has dropped its bid for independence and opted for autonomy.
Talks between MILF and the government began in 2003 and have been marred by periodic deadly clashes in the past few years. Both sides came close to signing a pact in 2008, but the Supreme Court ruled the proposed peace deal unconstitutional. This led to large-scale rebel attacks which killed about 400 and displaced some 750,000 people.
Aquino revived negotiations after he won elections in 2010, but talks nearly collapsed in late 2011 when rebel forces killed 19 soldiers, triggering heavy government reprisals and the displacement of some 10,000 people.
Ghazali Jaafar, MILF's chief political officer, said that following the most recent announcement, rebel commanders will be told to follow strictly an existing ceasefire, noting there has been zero fighting this year.
The Philippine military said it hoped the announcement will afford “battle-weary” soldiers respite from fighting so they can refocus their efforts on rehabilitating conflict zones.