MANILA, Philippines - Filipino Muslims sang, chanted and waved flags, as a peace framework agreement was signed between the Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group on Monday (October 15).
The peace agreement serves as a roadmap to forming a new autonomous region in the south, but both sides agree much more needs to be done to end over 40 years of conflict.
A successful agreement would be a boost for President Benigno Aquino at home and among foreign investors, managing what two presidents before him failed to achieve - peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The peace framework was signed in front of Aquino, MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has facilitated negotiations since March 2001.
Hundreds of Muslims, many in a vehicle caravan from Mindanao, gathered on a busy street about 200 metres from the presidential palace where the signing took place, to lend support to the peace agreement.
Some shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), the demonstrators waved banners and held placards which read "Give peace a chance" and "We support lasting peace in Mindanao".
Dozens of Muslim rebel leaders, businessmen and civil society groups arrived in Manila via a chartered flight from the southern Cotabato City to witness the signing ceremony.
Muslims who migrated to Manila from Mindanao also joined the rally.
"We have felt the pain of losing spouses, children, and siblings on both sides of the conflict. So we are very happy, and in our belief, the problem in Mindanao has ended," said an elderly Muslim woman.
The four decades of armed conflict has killed over 120,000 people, and has displaced over 2 million people. Constant evacuations have interrupted children's schooling and hampered farmers' livelihoods.
"Would you just realize how many forefathers that have been, passed away because of this conflict and fighting for the freedom. So this is a fruitful of what they have started, struggled for," said Maudi Mahadiri, an aid worker who came all the way from the southern Philippine island of Sulu to participate.
The demonstrators held vigil on the street, awaiting the hour of the signing. Loud speakers broadcast a radio commentary of the palace ceremony, and the Muslims cheered "Peace in Mindanao Now!" as the proceedings went on.
The Philippine business community also hailed the signed agreement as the first crucial step towards a progressive Mindanao, citing the positive social and economic effects of increased trade in the region.
"We're fully supportive of this framework agreement. We know that there is much more that needs to be done, but it's an important first step and we are sure that this will help open up a road map for business and investment road map for Mindanao, which is long overdue," said Peter Perfecto, executive director of the Makati Business Club.
Manila and MILF want to set up the region, to be known as "Bangsamoro", in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before Aquino steps down in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over resources.
The agreement did not give details of the power-sharing arrangement between the national government and the Bangsamoro, leaving it to a 15-member transition committee who will draft a law to be passed by Congress.
Negotiations resume next month in neighboring Malaysia to discuss details on wealth and power sharing, as well as the pace of decommissioning the rebels' 11,000-strong army.