MANILA - The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim group signed Monday, October 15, a peace deal that serves as roadmap to establishing a Muslim homeland in the south.
"This is the sound of peace," Ebrahim Murad, the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told President Benigno Aquino ahead of signing the deal, Reuters reported.
The deal begins a roadmap to create a new autonomous region in the Muslim-majority south.
The new region will be called Bangsamoro -- the term for those who are native to the region.
It is expected to include five provinces under the existing autonomous region plus parts of Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato provinces.
The Muslim homeland will gain powers such as the right to impose taxes to cut central government subsidies, a bigger share in revenues from natural resources and a more active role in internal security.
But the Philippine government will continue to hold exclusive powers of defense and security, foreign policy, monetary policy, and citizenship and naturalization.
"We are committed to enabling our partners to transform themselves to a genuine political party that can help facilitate the region's transition towards a truly peaceful and progressive place," he said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has facilitated the start-stop negotiations since March 2001, was present at the signing ceremony.
Foreign dignitaries and international aid agencies that helped in the peace process were also present.
The Philippine president is expected to issue an executive order shortly to form a 15-member transition commission that will formulate new legislation by 2015 to create a new Muslim local government for the new area.
A plebiscite later in Muslim-dominated areas in the south will determine the shape and size of the new Bangsamoro area.
"Much work remains to be done in order to fully reap the fruits of this framework agreement, Aquino said before the signing ceremony at the Malacanang palace.
We have commitments to fulfill, people to lead, and dreams to achieve.
The new framework deal has sparked high hopes for peace among Filipino Muslims.
"Negotiated political settlement is the most civilized and practical way to solve the Moro problem," MILF leader Murad said in his speech.
"We in the MILF central committee did not waver and vacillate in pursuing it to the end, despite the devastating three all-out wars in 2003 and 2008 waged by previous Philippine regimes."
MILF, the country's biggest Muslim group, has been struggling for an independent state in the mineral-rich southern region of Mindanao for some four decades now.
More than 120,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in the late 1960s.
Happy with the deal, hundreds of Muslims, many in a 20-vehicle caravan from Mindanao, gathered on a busy street about 200 meters from the presidential palace to lend support to the peace agreement, shouting "Allahu Akbar".
They also waved banners and held placards which read "Give peace a chance" and "We support lasting peace in Mindanao".
"There's no room for pessimism," Norhaiya Macusang of political group Anak Mindanao, told the crowd.
On Sunday, about 200 hijab-clad women took part in a run for peace with soldiers near the main army base.
"We are just at the starting point of a long journey to lasting peace, let's join hands together, Macusang said.
Mindanao, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines, is home to more than 5 million Muslims.Muslims make up nearly 8 percent of the total populace in the Philippines, which Islam reached in the 13th century about 200 years before Christianity.