Voices of reason
Twenty-eight years ago, Rahib Kudto saw soldiers torture his two older brothers. 'They came down by helicopter to Kibenis village in Carmen town, North Cotabato,' he recalled.
'Two kinds of soldiers would come to our remote mountain village - those who brought sardines and milk and those who were cruel. I was five then when I saw them maul my brothers, accusing them of being rebels because of their long hair.'
Despite this harrowing experience, compounded by years of living as a refugee, he managed to get over his anger when he realised that neither soldiers nor Christians were the Muslims' real enemies.
'It just so happened the soldiers were Christians being used by the government against us,' he said.
Now 33, Mr Kudto is an ustadz, or Muslim religious scholar, like his father and a passionate advocate of peace who was moved to organise the United Youth for Peace and Development (UNYPAD) in 2004 when peace talks between the government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) hit trouble over the issue of ancestral domain.
His coalition is one of dozens of Muslim non-governmental organisations that spoke out when talks collapsed after the Supreme Court stopped the government from signing a preliminary deal on August 5. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on ancestral domain would have granted Mindanao's Moro minority extraordinary powers over a wide swathe of territory rich in metal and oil deposits.
The court order provoked three rebel MILF commanders into a violent backlash, which the government seized on as a reason to back out of the deal and launch a military offensive. The ensuing conflict has killed more than 300 civilians, rebels and soldiers, and displaced half a million, mostly Muslim, residents.
From the ashes of a failed peace deal, however, has come an unexpected flowering of a new generation of Moro leaders like Mr Kudto. They are young, educated, articulate, internet savvy and furious over what has happened. They view the MOA as the embodiment of their dream of a Bangsamoro homeland.
Having been scarred by war as children, they profess to being moderates who want to forge a peaceful path to self-determination within the Philippines.
Their efforts have so far met with scant success, however. They were 'outshouted' by those opposed to the deal when, in fact, the support is tremendous on the ground, said Zainudin Malang, 42, executive director of the Bangsamoro Centre of Law and Policy.
Mr Malang's NGO would like Muslims to have the chance to decide their political fate, perhaps in a UN-supervised referendum. 'Do they want the present autonomy, a federal state or separate state; it's up to them,' he said.
Armed with a law degree from the elite Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University and a master's degree in law from Japan's Kyushu University, Mr Malang could have had his pick of jobs in Manila. Instead, he chose to live in Cotabato City with his wife and two daughters. There, as a boy, 'I remember seeing houses getting burned [by Christian terror squads],' he said.
'I remember my father, one day. when a stray bullet entered our house, a stack of his clothes had bullet holes. He had to throw them out,' he said.
'I want a home where I can raise my kids [but] right now I don't see this area as a place fit to raise kids.'
The dream of lawyer Samira Gutoc is similar to that of Mr Malang and Mr Kudto - a place for Muslims to call their own. The MOA approximated the dream of a Moro homeland, which was why the group she formed in 2001, the Young Moro Professionals Network, was pushing hard for it, she said.
Ms Gutoc, 34, was the first female president of the University of the Philippines Muslims Association, a group founded at the nation's premier university by former student and political science lecturer Nur Misuari.
He later founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which, in 1996, signed a peace deal with the government.
Unlike the MNLF, Ms Gutoc's network was 'not very political' and 'non-violent', she said.
It has 130 members, all Muslim professionals scattered around the country and abroad, who communicate via the internet.
Ms Gutoc sees the group's role as 'bridging the divide' between Christians and the Muslim minority, who comprise 6 per cent of the Philippine population.
They have staged peace forums and lobbied government officials to resume talks. Should the dream of a Moro homeland come true, they will provide the necessary technical expertise to see it become a reality, she said.
'We will not support a secessionist state because most of us believe we belong to a nation state with multiple nationalities, including a Bangsamoro community.' Ms Gutoc was born and raised in a multiracial district in Saudi Arabia, where her father was a Filipino diplomat.
Secession is out of the question for Muslim youth activists, according to Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of the Philippines.
Muslim youth were well aware that staging another separatist rebellion would only complicate matters since the MNLF and MILF were 'still alive and kicking', he said.
'They would rather use the small space they have to push the peace process forward, rather than complicate things,' Professor Wadi said.
He said Muslim youth had learned from the tragic story of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf.
Abu Sayyaf began in the 1990s as a mere study group tutored by a young Muslim cleric named Abdurajak Janjalani, but later changed into a radical political group advocating secession.
'The problem is, it was Misuari who benefited from the rebellion of the Abu Sayyaf,' said Professor Wadi, adding that the group's extreme violence pressured the government into a political settlement with the MNLF leader.
'Muslim youth know the danger of going to that extreme,' he added.
Professor Julkipli said the combination of western-style education and modern communications had armed the next generation with a greater ability to articulate their cause peacefully.
Mr Kudto said his group had ruled out secession. 'What's important is we will be given freedom in our own homeland, be able to govern ourselves but not necessarily as a separate state,' he said. 'We are being killed, massacred. Our houses are being burned. We've never felt we are Filipinos.'
On November 8, the group wrote to US president-elect Barack Obama asking him 'to directly intervene to help us in our effort to convince the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to go back to the negotiating table and eventually ink the Memorandum of Agreement'.
The letter also asked him to push the UN to send a peacekeeping force to the troubled province. Mr Kudto sent the e-mail himself to Mr Obama's website, and his deputy handed a copy to US ambassador Kristie Kenney.
The following day, Mr Kudto received a 'Dear Rahib' e-mail from Mr Obama.
It was short and gracious, made no promises and, though apparently a form letter batch-mailed to millions, he felt encouraged. Particularly uplifting was the last sentence which read: 'I hope you will remain active in your community and involved in national policy debates.'
Eleven days earlier, UNYPAD had appealed directly to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for a peacekeeping force to 'stall the continuing carnage on this island'.
Last week, the UN chief sent Radhika Coomaraswamy, his special representative for children and armed conflict, to talk to both sides.
Mr Kudto is a trained agriculturist, expertise that has come in handy with UNYPAD's peace-building efforts. The group gets UN funding for such grass-roots projects as aquaculture, forestry and disaster action.
Though his NGO is 10,000-strong, he rules out any chance of it becoming a revolutionary organisation like the separatist MILF with its 11,000 members. 'But I'm not sure of [some of] the members,' he said.
According to Professor Wadi, the Muslim revolt of the 1970s was led by the intelligentsia, some of whom, like Professor Misuari, enjoyed state scholarships 'and eventually rebelled'.
He did not see any youth leader rising to prominence just yet, partly because Muslims today were more discerning and somewhat disenchanted with their present crop of leaders.
'It deepens the pain when I see MNLF commanders who have become politicians and acquired beautiful houses and cars but are heartless to the suffering of their people. To me, that's a sense of irresponsibility,' he said.
Professor Wadi blames these leaders for the mess in Muslim Mindanao. 'Despite the pouring in of aid, why is Muslim Mindanao at the tail end of all indicators? Because this assistance is not properly used and possibly benefits a small group of Moro elite.'
For Professor Wadi, who like most MNLF leaders belongs to the Tausug tribe, the betrayal is painfully personal. In 1974, the military retaliated against the MNLF by bombing civilian homes.
'When I was four or five, I vividly remember my younger sister during a bombardment from a tora tora plane or a naval boat. There was an explosion [and] we were running.'
He remembers his sister wailing when they dropped to the ground.
Later, her mother realised she had dropped the baby on a pointed tree branch. She died a few months later.