Secy. Jesus Dureza, the presidential peace adviser, assured the locals the government peace process in Mindanao is transparent and allayed fears of secret talk between Manila and the MILF, the country's largest Muslim separatist rebel group.
"The government is transparent in the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and there is nothing to hide to the public about the peace process," Dureza said.
Mayor Celso Lobregat led local officials and residents in opposing the inclusion of Zamboanga City to any proposed Bangsamoro homeland or the dismembering of the country.
Even the Catholic Church has opposed the city's inclusion to the Muslim homeland. "The people have spoken and we have shown that we are all united together. Leave us alone in peace," said Msgr. Crisanto dela Cruz.
Residents arrived in flocks, some as far as villages 50 kilometers away, to show their support to Lobregat's appeal to government peace negotiators not to include Zamboanga in any secret deal with the MILF.
"I and my family and our neighbors come here to support Mayor Lobregat and besides we do not want to be part of any Muslim state or homeland."
Some of those who arrived have placards that read: "Leave us in Peace, go away rebels." One sign reads, "Pls. exclude Zamboanga to be part of MILF-GRP peace agreement."
Filipino peace negotiators and Muslim rebels have agreed to hold a plebiscite for a separate homeland in the southern Philippines. The MILF, which is currently negotiating peace with Manila, said the referendum would be held in areas where there are large Muslim communities.
President Arroyo opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001 in an effort to end decades of bloody fighting in Mindanao and solve one of the world's longest-running Muslim insurgency problems.
In September, peace negotiators signed several agreements centered on the ancestral domain - its concept, territories and resources, and how the MILF shall govern these places.
Ancestral domain refers to the MILF's demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland. For the rebel group it is the single most important issue in the peace negotiations before it can reach a political settlement.
Both sides have agreed on several crucial issues, including the coverage of a proposed ancestral domain in the five Muslim autonomous provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. And other areas in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces, which have large Muslim communities and indigenous tribes.
"We will consolidate and review the agreements, and then ratify them. And after that a peace accord will be signed and a plebiscite for the establishment of a separate Muslim homeland shall be held in the southern Philippines or in areas agreed upon by the peace panels," said Eid Kabalu, the spokesman for the MILF.
He said the plebiscite would be supervised either by the United Nations or an international group composed of countries that are supporting the peace talks.
"Everything in the peace agreement will be submitted to the people. There is nothing to hide and just like today, Zamboanga City is host to a forum on the peace process, and we really wanted all these to be transparent," Kabalu said.
Lobregat has repeatedly denounced the agreement signed by the government and rebel peace negotiators that would give a homeland to the MILF.
He said the government signed a secret deal with the MILF that would allow them to establish an Islamic state across Mindanao under the guise of the so-called Muslim ancestral domain.
"This is a sellout. We won't allow Mindanao to be dismembered, and we must act swiftly before it is too late," Lobregat said.
A new group in Zamboanga City called the Concerned Citizen-Activists for Development (CCA), composed mostly of allies of Lobregat, said it would oppose any move to include the city to the separate homeland for Muslims.
It said the locals were not consulted about the agreements signed by the MILF and government peace negotiators. Zamboanga City has more than 600,000 population and about 100,000 are Muslims.
Khaled Musa, deputy chair of the MILF's information committee, said the Muslims have the right to determine their own political future. "The right of the Bangsamoro people to determine their own political future is not subject to veto by any group in Mindanao.
Many Arab countries, including the influential Organization of Islamic Conference, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United States are strongly supporting the peace talks.
President George Bush has offered as much as $30 million in financial assistance to help develop Mindanao should the MILF seal a peace agreement with Manila. The money would be used to help the rebels get back to the mainstream of society. President Arroyo said that 80 percent of the peace talks have been completed and that peace in Mindanao is within reach.
The MILF earlier said it is likely to share sovereign powers with the Arroyo government in Mindanao and that talks are going on to put up the Bangsamoro government.
Kabalu said peace negotiators were discussing on how the Muslims will run the proposed new government, but he was quick to say that both sides are seriously studying new formulas based on model countries such as Sudan, Palestine, East Timor, Northern Ireland, and Bougainville.
"Talks are going on about the proposal for a shared government and shared sovereignty between the Bangsamoro people and the Philippine government."
"The results of this proposal will depend entirely on the outcome of the peace negotiations. Once the new Bangsamoro government is finally set up, then the five-province Muslim autonomous region will be dissolved," Kabalu said.
He said the MILF was also proposing to government negotiators that the Muslims be given an option to choose in a referendum whether they wanted Mindanao to be an independent state or not.
Many local Muslims said they were supporting the MILF and the proposal to put up the Bangsamoro government, but majority of them wanted an independent Islamic state, similar to Iran.
"That's good if the MILF can put up this Bangsamoro government in areas where there are large Muslim communities, like Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi and Central Mindanao. But if would be much better if we have our own government, a Muslim state, like Iran and run our government according to the teachings of Islam," said Abdullah bin Rashid.
Ustadz Shariff Julabbi, a former guerilla leader and MILF spokesman, said Filipino Muslims would welcome an Islamic government in Mindanao.
"This is the clamor of the millions of Filipino Muslim not only in Mindanao, but all across the Philippines, to have their own government. The aspiration and determination of the Bangsamoro people is very strong and we are all supporting this proposal to put up a Muslim government in the southern region," he said.