MANILA, 16 May 2011 (IRIN) - The Philippines government aims to complete the construction of more than 2,300 "core shelters" for displaced families on the troubled southern island of Mindanao by year-end, effectively halving the total now needed.
The news comes as Muslim separatist rebels waging a decades-old war with the government say they are willing to end their bid for independence and settle for limited self-rule.
The project falls under the government's Early Recovery Programme (ERP), a three-year project established last year to help conflict-displaced families in the southern province of Maguindanao, scene of some of the bloodiest conflicts between troops and the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in recent years, officials say.
According to data from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which has jurisdiction over Maguindanao, more than 5,000 families or about 30,000 people are still housed in some 54 evacuation centres around the province.
"The core shelters are made from light material, and by the end of the year we shall have finished building 2,300 units," said Sheryl Datinguinoo, a project development officer at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, which is spearheading the project.
Under the plan, each unit will accommodate one family - typically about six people - who will be awarded their own titles and ownership certificates.
The MILF began its insurgency in 1978 to establish an independent Islamic state on Mindanao, the country's southern island where Muslims are a minority. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead over the years, although there have been attempts to negotiate an end to the problem.
Large-scale conflict broke out when two rogue MILF commanders launched attacks across Mindanao towns in August 2008, shortly after the Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional a deal with the government giving the rebels political and economic control over large areas they claim as their "ancestral domain".
The fighting left nearly 400 dead on both sides, while more than 700,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting. Many of those affected had already returned home, although government data showed up to 60,000 remain displaced, many of them in Maguindanao.
President Benigno Aquino resumed talks with the MILF in February, and his team of negotiators is due to submit a draft peace pact in June. For the first time, the MILF last week dispatched negotiators to meet civic and business leaders in the capital, Manila, to explain fully their demands.
A draft of the MILF's proposed "comprehensive compact" obtained by IRIN showed the rebels were now opting for the creation of a de facto federal state to govern about 700 towns and villagers they claim as traditional Muslim areas.
While the area is envisioned to have its own Sharia law, it would split taxes and resources with the central government and participate in crafting legislature at the national level, as well as help to integrate back to the community those displaced by the conflict.
"We are no longer pushing for independence but for the right to self-governance; a state within a state," MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told IRIN.
Datinguinoo said 10 families had so far received shelters, and livelihood projects were being lined up to help them sustain their families. As a start, the recipient families received basic needs, including access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
"The core shelter programme will be expanded beyond Maguindanao in the future," she said.