They came by foot, some arriving days early -- men taking time off from work and veiled women in long dresses with children in tow, lugging bottles of water and baskets of food under the scorching sun.
The goals of peace, a Muslim homeland and perhaps even prosperity -- such elusive dreams for so many years -- seemed almost within grasp. No one wanted to miss out on having their voice heard by the Muslim negotiators working on a peace deal with the Philippine government. The rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front's first congress drew an estimated 100,000 people to Camp Darapanan in the southern Philippines' Sultan Kudarat town this week as peace talks to resolve the region's decades-old Muslim separatist conflict enter what may be the final stretch. Men, separated from women along the dirt road to the assembly site, ran in formation as security marshals pointed the way to the ornately adorned stage. Some cried out "Allah is Great" as they raised clenched fists.
"I am happy about the peace talks. You can see that united, we can ask for peace," said Faizal Karim, the 21-year-old son of a retired MILF guerrilla who gave up two days of work and walked over 6km to take part in the consultations.
MILF chairman Al Haj Murad, in a speech cheered by followers, government officials and diplomats, brimmed with optimism, saying "Peace is partly at hand." Government officials share that optimism.
"We are confident, by the grace of Allah, that we will succeed," presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles said in a speech. But Abhoud Syed Lingga, executive director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, believes that much remains to be ironed out.
"What are the hard facts that would tell us [peace] is already at hand? So far what they have shown us is only a joint statement which is very broad," he said. "There might be an agreement within this year, but I don't think there will be a final agreement," he said, cautioning that "political statements" from both sides may be sparking "false hopes."
The three-day consultations yielded a resolution granting the MILF leadership full authority to negotiate for self-rule. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the mandate allows the leadership to pick from a number of proposals, ranging from full independence to a federal state, a commonwealth state or a free association state.
Deles said she believed the MILF showed political maturity and discipline in organizing a huge meeting that was virtually gunless except for a handful of armed security men.
"You can feel it in the air actually that this is a sincere effort of our Muslim brethren to come together and to have a consensus that will be relayed to their leaders and to empower them to negotiate for certain aspirations," government chief negotiator Silvestre Afable said.
Deles likened the process to a traveler within a short distance of his destination, but with a mountain still in the way. How to secure a final peace deal -- and how to ensure it works -- remain critical.
The government offered limited autonomy to another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, under a 1996 peace accord. The MILF was formed from a disgruntled MNLF faction. The five-province autonomous region governed by MNLF leaders has remained one of the country's poorest regions.
Muslimin Sema, mayor of southern Cotabato city and MNLF secretary general, calls it "a failure" -- unable to collect taxes, operate its own power source or even control its own creeks and rivers.