DARAPANAN, Philippines -- Forty-nine years ago, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim quit college and joined a rebellion intent on establishing an Islamic government in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. Now, aged 69, he is just a referendum away from realizing his dream.
"We've been in the organization for more than 40 years. We've been leading the revolutionary organization, but never have we been in formal governance," Murad told the Nikkei Asian Review at his rebel group's largest camp.
Murad leads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 30,000-strong group aspiring for self-governance in their homeland in Mindanao, a resource-rich island group in the Philippines' south. Large portions of the island have been left impoverished by years of violent conflict.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed a law in July to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the Moro Front is on a monthlong campaign to gather support before a plebiscite on whether to approve the new region. The referendum will take place on two dates -- Jan. 21 and Feb. 6.
The BARMM, once ratified, will replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, created in 1989. The new law will grant over 50 exclusive powers to the region, including a Sharia-based justice system and Islamic financing.
"We see it as another level of struggle. This time, it's not a struggle with weapons, but a struggle to make the system operative and effective and cure the ills of the system," Murad said.
In early December, tens of thousands of Filipino Muslims and their supporters converged on the southern Philippine city of Cotabato to show their support for the referendum. Expectations are high that the vote can bring to an end decades of conflict that have left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions more displaced.
The Moro Front envisions Cotabato City becoming its regional capital. In the city, Christian minorities intermingle with a predominantly Muslim population -- one of only two living Catholic cardinals in the Philippines lives there. Roast suckling pigs -- forbidden under Islamic law -- are openly on sale in the city's commercial district.
But amid the optimism, opposition from local politicians and splinter groups are threatening the road to peace.
Cotabato is nestled inside ARMM and the current autonomous government sits there, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the city itself officially belongs to another region hundreds of kilometers away. A senior city official said that Cotabato -- which voted against inclusion in two referendums in 1989 and 2001 -- will likely vote "no" for a third time.
Aniceto Rasalan, secretary to the mayor, said the city is better off outside the envisioned Bangsamoro territory. "They'll turn Cotabato City into a milking cow," he said, using an expression to describe how the city's economic success will be used to pay for services across the rest of the impoverished region.
Cotabato is going through something of a boom -- private businesses have boosted the local government's income ninefold in just eight years. Rasalan said residents fear a downgrade in social services should the city become subsumed into the country's most impoverished region.
The constitutionality of the Bangsamoro law has also been called into question, with the governor of the region's Sulu Province calling on the Supreme Court to halt the referendum until it resolves the issue.
Conflict also remains a threat. Deep in the jungles of Mindanao, a splinter group continues to wage an armed rebellion against the national government. Other militants, with support from foreign extremists, want to turn the island into an Islamic caliphate.
In May 2017, Islamic State-inspired militants launched a failed attempt to establish an East Asia caliphate in Marawi City, leaving the predominantly Muslim city in ruins. More than a thousand people died in the five months before the city was liberated by government troops.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which broke away from the Moro leadership in 2010 after a previous peace deal collapsed, said it would continue its armed struggle. BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama said the group will not participate in the plebiscite.
Murad said the splinter groups are a result of frustrations over protracted peace negotiations. He hopes the final settlement will end their aggression.
"At the initial stage, we want them to give the political structure a chance, and they will see for themselves if it is successful, and then they are welcome to participate," Murad said.
Outside the Moro Front's stronghold, some former enemies have become key allies.
They include Loreto Cabaya, a former mayor of Aleosan town in North Cotabato -- a town caught in the middle between Moro rebels and Christian migrants from central Philippines. It has been a constant target of the rebellion. Cabaya used to lead a 700-person Christian militia.
A trip to a peace conference in Bangkok in 2009 exposed him to bigger conflicts elsewhere that dwarfed the violence in Mindanao.
"It made me realize that I could be part of that effort to make peace starting from my heart, next to the community, and later to the bigger theaters," Cabaya said. A few months later he went to Murad's stronghold in Darapanan and became a "partner for peace."
But once the autonomous region is ratified in the plebiscite, bigger challenges lie ahead for Murad. In its development plan, the Moro Front aims to provide basic assistance to communities, and armed rebels would need to adjust to civilian life once the group starts decommissioning its fighters and weapons.
The ARMM contributes less than 1% to the country's total output. Agriculture accounts for more than half of total production in the region and investment is sorely needed to create jobs and encourage growth.
Ishak Mastura, ARMM's investments chief, said it will not be easy to attract businesses and investment. It will not be easy to attract businesses.
"In any process, it takes decades before you reach a modicum of stability. We haven't reached that part yet," Mastura said. "The ones that invest here mostly will be locals in the beginning. Peace will provide that opportunity?"