The oppressive summer heat bore down on this impoverished southern Philippine town on Mindanao Island as thousands gathered to hear a "proxy candidate" of the country's largest Muslim rebel force address the crowd on the eve of recently concluded mid-term elections.
In the crowd were members of the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - this time unarmed in keeping with a promise to the government to help keep peace and order during the 13 May polls.
The candidate backed by MILF- the group’s first time to openly support a candidate - Tucao Mastura, 66, was a last-minute challenger to Esmael Mangudadatu, who has been governor of the Muslim-dominated Maguindanao, one of five provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), since 2010. Mastura lost, but he said the election was a “fruitful” exercise that gave the rebels and the `Bangsamoro’ (local Muslims) a lesson in democracy.
MILF has shunned past local elections, so as to not appear as if it were abandoning its struggle.
"You could say I was a proxy candidate for the MILF," said Mastura, whose older brother is a member of MILF's decision-making central committee. "I did not want to run for governor of Maguindanao, but due to circumstances, the Bangsamoro people decided to push me in order to partake in this political exercise."
He said had he won, it would have given MILF its first taste of governance ahead of signing a final peace agreement with the government, under negotiation since last October, and hopefully ending four decades of bloodshed that have left tens of thousands dead and the southern region mired in deep poverty.
Mastura, a grizzled veteran who had fought in the jungles at the peak of the insurgency in the 1970s before deciding to drop his guns for a degree in accountancy, said he believed real peace could only be achieved by empowering local Muslims and giving them a chance to run their own affairs.
The governorship of Maguindanao would have given the MILF a toehold in local politics traditionally ruled by moneyed and powerful clans, Mastura said, though he claimed the loss had not left him embittered.
"We will get another chance in the new political entity," he said.
MILF signed a "framework" agreement with Manila in October 2012, in which the government agreed to create a new autonomous political entity to be governed by MILF by 2016, when the six-year term of reformist President Benigno Aquino ends.
A transition commission has until next year to draft a basic law to be passed in parliament, which will then carry out a referendum on whether proposed areas for the new autonomous region want to join. The new region will replace the current ARMM, created in 1990, which the government has called a “failed experiment” that has yet to improve life for the region’s 4.5 million Muslims.
Both sides are still discussing how to share resources in the proposed area and how to fully reintegrate combatants into society while disarming them.
"I hope by 2016 the Bangsamoro would be able to fully govern ourselves and engage the public," Mastura said. "We will continue to work with the government towards achieving this goal."
Chief negotiator hopeful
The government's chief negotiator with MILF, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, told IRIN recently that a final peace deal could be signed before Congress resumes in July. She said that apart from helping monitor peace and order, MILF had also been helping the government arrest illegal loggers and apprehend suspected “terrorists” and criminals in areas it controls, many of which lie within ARMM.
She said MILF has given in to the "primacy of the peace process" and even allowed President Aquino to visit rebel areas in February, a first for a sitting president.
Aid agencies are safely escorted into areas with development programmes under way.
The rebels signed a pact with government in January this year to support a ban on firearms during election day, as well as allowing unhindered movement of election personnel into “security-sensitive areas”, including remote villages and towns claimed by MILF as part of its ancestral domain.
"My MILF counterpart has repeatedly said failure is not an option. I agree completely," Coronel-Ferrer said.