The Philippine government has completed peace talks with Muslim rebels after they agreed to turn over their weapons, ending four decades of deadly insurgency in Mindanao. This could fast-track rehabilitation of the war-torn southern region, and allow greater quantities of humanitarian aid to become available.
After talks in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of neighbouring Malaysia, both sides said on 25 January they had signed a document on "normalization", which outlines how the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will hand over weapons to an independent commission.
The normalization agreement has been the fourth and most contentious component of a final peace accord, which both sides said they expected to sign in the coming weeks. The MILF and the government have already agreed on taxation, governance, and power-sharing in Mindanao, where the insurgency led to a vicious cycle of displacement, fatalities and economic dislocation.
Japan, the US and the European Union quickly welcomed the agreement, saying that with the impending signing of the final peace accord, all sides could now finally concentrate on rehabilitating the region.
"This agreement offers the promise of peace, security, and economic prosperity now and for future generations in Mindanao," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. The US has promised more development aid to the region once the deal is signed, including investment in infrastructure, education and health.
Ghazali Jaafar, a senior MILF leader, said he hoped the agreement would lead to the rehabilitation of many Muslim communities, which were mired in extreme poverty and had been largely been inaccessible to aid groups, who were constrained by security issues.
He said MILF fighters had agreed that an independent commission would oversee the "decommissioning" of firearms, although some would be retained in for use in a joint government-MILF security force to patrol Muslim areas to ensure protection from groups who might wish to sabotage the peace effort.
"What this means for us is that after decades of fighting we will see real dividends of peace, and for the first time in many years we will be able to directly participate in improving the lives of many poor people in Mindanao," Jaafar told IRIN.
He said areas that could previously not be reached by international aid agencies were expected to reap the benefits of a sustained peace. However, he acknowledged the challenges ahead, including the possibility of opposition by a number of Mindanao lawmakers in predominantly Christian areas, who feared falling under the authority of MILF in the proposed restructuring.
"There will be more humanitarian access," he said, adding that the MILF had earlier told all its field commanders to allow safe passage to all humanitarian actors trying to reach remote areas.
He said the next step was for a "transition commission" to finish drafting a "basic law" for a proposed Muslim autonomous area, which would be signed by President Benigno Aquino and presented in Congress as a bill. Once the bill has passed, a plebiscite would be held in areas falling under the region of self-rule.
Aquino has expressed hopes that the autonomous region will exist by the time his single six-year term as president ends, and has repeatedly said it he wanted a lasting peace in Mindanao to be his administration's legacy. It has long been projected that when the guns finally fall silent, the government and the private sector could begin developing Mindanao's estimated untapped wealth of US$300 billion in gold, copper and other minerals.
But decades of intense warfare have led to a proliferation of armed groups, not all of which have been in favour of the peace talks. In September, followers of Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), laid siege to the key southern port city of Zamboanga, triggering three weeks of fighting that left some 250 rebels, soldiers and civilians dead, and displaced tens of thousands.
On 14 January there were still over 63,000 displaced people in Zamboanga City, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The MNLF signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, leading to the creation of an autonomous region they governed, but it failed to develop when many rebels became corrupt politicians. Aquino referred to this as a "failed experiment", and sought to negotiate wider autonomy in the region.