Report – By Nicholas Jones in Aleosan, Mindanao
The end looks nigh for the four-decades-old bloody conflict between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels.
Four years ago, Bing Mangisig and her young family fled their home in a remote area of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao after hearing gunfire and explosions nearby.
This week the family and hundreds of other locals welcomed celebrities from the capital, Manila, as the pop hit Gangnam Style blared from loudspeakers.
It was a suitably surreal soundtrack for an event that until recently was unthinkable.
The town of Aleosan in North Cotabato has been at the heart of a violent 40-year struggle for independence by Muslim rebel groups in the southern island of Mindanao.
Bombings, kidnappings and skirmishes have classed areas of Mindanao as among the most dangerous in the world for outsiders, foreigners and Filipinos.
But last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino announced a framework peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The 11,000-strong insurgent group agreed to abandon violent resistance in exchange for an autonomous region in mainly Muslim parts of Mindanao.
Years of internal migration has meant Mindanao, like the rest of the country, is now predominantly Catholic. Details of how power will be shared are still being worked through, and other smaller separatist groups are not yet part of the agreement.
The New Zealand government is one of many that continues to advise against non-essential travel to Mindanao.
Abu Sayyaf, a hardline breakaway from the MILF, killed four marines in a shootout last weekend and continues to hold hostages, including an Australian.
Although small compared to the MILF, the group is as well known internationally because of its brutality, including beheading Western tourists and missionaries.
The decades of fighting have also led to the proliferation of unlicensed guns and powerful political clans, which have their own private armies.
But there is now real hope that a conflict that has claimed more than 120,000 lives and crippled development in the resource-rich region could be drawing to a close.
The “peace ambassador” trip to Aleosan is highly symbolic, and the government made sure Philippine media were there to cover it.
As our convoy made the five-hour drive to the island’s interior, reporters who have spent years covering the insurgency provided a running commentary.
A town where we stop for petrol is where an aid worker was injured in an explosion last month.
Further down another road, a local political rivalry saw 58 people, including 32 journalists, murdered and dumped in a mass grave in the Ampatuan massacre of 2009. (I’m assured at least some of clan allegedly responsible are in jail).
Military and police check points increase as we near the village, and the highway narrows to one pothole-filled lane.
Houses can no longer be seen, only basic shacks and huts – the conflict is estimated to have displaced around two million people between 2000 and 2006 alone.
But in the festive atmosphere that greets our arrival it’s almost possible to forget the troubles, save for the odd soldier with an automatic weapon slung over the shoulder.
Despite the oppressive heat, hundreds of people have waited in the town square, and they cheer and stare wide-eyed at the celebrities on stage.
Members of the national soccer team hand over footballs, and children crowd in for their turn to see and hold one for the first time.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic – some landowners further back from the stage tell reporters they are worried about the lack of detail on the agreement.
But for Mangisig, who sat with her 6-year-old son as she spoke to Pacific Scoop, peace must be given every chance.
Her family fled when scores of people were killed in fighting after Aleosan and other villages were seized by a breakaway of the MILF in 2008.
After a year living in a refugee camp they returned to find their house had been burned to the ground and their possessions stolen.
They now live in housing built with government money, which has also funded other community buildings.
But apart from basic shops there are no significant businesses in the town, something Mayor Loreto Cabaya hopes will change if the peace process holds fast.
“We will give peace a chance. It is the only option for now – we have seen no other option.”
New Zealand Herald journalist Nicholas Jones is on an Asia New Zealand Foundation internship at the Philippine Star. He graduated from AUT University after completing the Asia-Pacific Journalism course with the Pacific Media Centre.