Preventive Action


Cosponsored with Council on Foreign Relations

April 12, 2005

Datu Toto Paglas, III, Ceo, The Paglas Group Of Companies
Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, Senior Research Associate, U.S. Institute Of Peace
Mr. David L. Phillips, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Center For Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations (Presiding)

Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez:

It is an honor to share this podium today with Datu Ibrahim Pendatun Paglas. My brief comments will focus on four questions.

1) What are the roots of the conflict in Mindanao? 2) What are U.S. interests in a peaceful resolution of this conflict? 3) What is the state of the current peace process? 4) What does our guest today have to do with all the above?


What are the roots of the conflict in Mindanao?

Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in southern Philippines are the ancestral land of Filipino Muslims, who are called Moros. The term Moros came from the Spanish colonial period, when Spaniards viewed the Islamized islanders as a version of their own Moors. Most Moros today come from three ethnic groups: the Tausugs, the Maguindanaos, and the Maranaos. Islam came to Mindanao in the 14th century and was a powerful influence in the history of two great sultanates or state formations that lasted centuries: the Sulu Sultanate and the Maguindanao Sultanate.

Mindanao is arguably the richest part of the Philippines in terms of arable land, forests, rivers, and mineral deposits. Moros number roughly 4-5 million or about 5% of the Philippine population, though this number is contested. No complete census has been done on the Moro population.

Moros, more than any other ethnic or regional groups in the Philippines, sustained long and violent struggles against Spanish and American colonial rulers from the 16th to 20th centuries. In the 1970s, a new civil war erupted partly in reaction to the massacre of Moro recruits in the Philippine army in 1968, during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Over 120,000 have died since and millions displaced over time-this despite the signing of several peace agreements.

Moros negotiating with the Philippine government often refer to the "Moro problem." By this they mean their search for territorial, political, cultural and economic arrangements that would address long-term Moro marginalization and allow them a significant measure of genuine self-determination.

What are U.S. interests in a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Mindanao?

This conflict never drew much attention in U.S. foreign policy until after 9/11. It is now a well-known fact that in the 1990's, some of the most notorious and highest ranking Al-Qaeda leaders and affiliates spent time in the Philippines. They were there to seek refuge-e.g., Ramzi Youssef, after his attempt in 1993 to bomb the World Trade Center-or to train and educate future recruits. The overarching American interest in Mindanao is to stop terrorism. Just a couple of days ago, the second in command at the US embassy in Manila summed this up by saying, exaggeratedly I think, and using impolite language, by declaring Mindanao the new "Mecca of terrorism."

Washington is interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Mindanao because having the MILF or Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 12,000-strong armed force, demobilize would make the landscape clearer for identifying and pursuing smaller groups of genuine terrorists. However, for reasons I have no time to elaborate on, we have not had much success yet in implementing this policy.

I would note also that the United States looms large in the minds of many Moros: 1) Moros apportion some of the historical blame on the United States for their plight. Their leaders had pithily petitioned the American president in 1924 to make Muslim land permanent American territory because they believed in American justice more than Filipino justice. "[Your soldiers] have in the past treated us justly, they do not steal our property, and they do not mix or meddle with our women." 2) Because some Moros fought in the U.S.-backed war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, in the 1980's, they came to believe that their cause could only win with U.S. support. But now they feel betrayed and threatened by the U.S. label of "terrorism." 3) Many Moros believe that no other power in the world besides the U.S. can lean upon the Philippine government to treat them justly and give them a meaningful peace agreement.

What is happening in the current peace process?

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front began formal negotiations with the Philippine government in 2001, under the official facilitation of Malaysia. Progress has been extremely slow and uneven. The presidents of the Philippines and the United States agreed in 2003 that the U.S. should help facilitate the peace process, but the Malaysians have not welcomed our involvement in official negotiations. Our input, through the USIP, has focused mainly on building bridges with the parties in the Philippines and bringing international expertise to bear on thorny issues being negotiated. I am directly involved in this effort and would be happy to talk more about this during our Q&A.

What does our guest today, Datu Paglas, have to do with all that I've just said?

A big problem in the conflict in Mindanao has been the absence of strong, honest, and competent Moro leaders. One could look at the last several centuries and see how Moro leaders themselves have let their people down. Our guest today, Datu Paglas, is a new breed of Moro leader. I met him last year and have traveled with him to some of the most remote areas of Mindanao, including Sulu, the reputed lair of the notorious Abu Sayyaf.

In 2002 the WSJ ran a profile on Datu Paglas. It described the miracle of his plantations in Mindanao. He was able to convince foreign investors in 1996 to invest in Muslim land for the first time. His anchor investor, a long-term American player in Mindanao, had sworn never to put money in Muslim lands. But Datu Paglas looked him in the eye and swore to protect any investment with his life. With American, Saudi, and Italian investments, Datu Paglas hired thousands of former guerillas, former kidnappers, poor peasants, Christians and Muslims. He brought Jewish technology experts to the plantation. He went and studied at a kibbutz in Israel. I met one of his Jewish technology officers who worked five years in Mindanao and asked him, "Yaal, do you have family here?" He said, "My Moro brothers are my family." That spoke volumes for what Datu Paglas has done.

Datu Paglas and his investors have not waited for an official peace to bring economic development to the Moros who have been among the poorest of the poor, the least educated, and the most marginalized in Philippine society. He understands the futility of formal peace agreements [show red book]. He has boldly argued that we should bring development first and peace will follow. His view is somewhat counterintuitive and different from conventional policy wisdom. Islamic ideology does not figure prominently in his analysis of the roots of conflict in Mindanao.

Last December I sat across three former guerillas employed at Datu Paglas' plantation. One of them was a former battalion commander. Their eyes gleamed when they described to me their television sets, their gas pads for cooking, and their permanent address-even if only a hut. I asked them about terrorists in Mindanao. One of them took out a picture from his wallet of three members of the Abu Sayyaf, wanted by both the U.S. and Philippine military. He said, "If any of these three show up here, we will kill them. We know how to kill. We don't need the military to help us. We have a life now and we don't want anyone to ruin it for us." Datu Paglas likes to say that he never finished college, but I believe we have a tremendous amount to learn from him.

Datu Toto Paglas, III:

Shalom, Assalamu Alaikum. Peace of God Be Upon Humanity. Greetings of Peace and Goodwill to the distinguished participants to this dialogue.

I would like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to speak here and the Asia Society for co-sponsoring this event. I also thank Dr. Astrid Tuminez, for her having initiated my participation in this dialogue. In December last year, she visited the so-called "dangerous areas" of Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines, traveling mostly by land and without any military escort, crossing at least 6 provinces in 2 days, and I believe experiencing first hand the Muslim villagers' fondness for Americans. I also wish to make a special acknowledgement to Mr. Washington SyCip a highly revered captain of industry, a mentor to many including myself, who sits on the International Board of Advisers of the CFR.

I come from Mindanao, a rich island in southern Philippines. Most Americans know Mindanao only from reading bad news about bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and terrorist activities. But I am here today to tell some good news. I feel very privileged to represent a unique story in a conflict zone in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Foreign observers call this story "The Datu Paglas Story." Before I tell more about the Datu Paglas story, I would like to say that I like the title of today's session: Preventive Action. Yes, as the Wise would say, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. After 9/11, the so-called "Muslim problem" has become an added focus of world's consciousness. An often-asked question is how do you prevent "Muslims" from committing "terroristic acts?" How do you prevent them from fighting the duly constituted government? How do you prevent the children from being indoctrinated into lawlessness and violence up in the mountains when they should be IN schools?

In the case of Mindanao, how do we relate with those who genuinely feel wronged for generations, whose feelings of bitterness had been passed on to the present and continues to be passed on to their children including mine? How do we convince them, that there is a peaceful and yet still honorable, way to correct the "wrongs" of the past? Philippine Muslims should no longer live in the past and must go beyond the "victim mentality." We need to move on to the "self-help, winning, forward-looking" mindset. But before we can do that, our legitimate grievances must first be addressed. It is my wish that the CFR may play a role if only to help confront the issue on global terrorism, and study the idea of economic development as a crucial path to lasting peace.

With your kind indulgence, let me make a proposal for the Council on Foreign Relations to please conduct a study that may adopt the title of our dialogue today. That study should take into account the following points:

  1. It should recognize the need to address squarely the American concern about "terrorism among the Muslims" in the Philippines.
  2. There are legitimate Muslim grievances in the Philippines that have not been addressed. These have roots in history, including a petition to the President of the United States and a Declaration to the Congress of the United States of America" signed by Muslim leaders in Mindanao in the 1920s, asking not to make Muslim territory part of an independent Christian Philippines. Most Americans don't care about this history, but Moros care about it a lot.
  3. True, there are lawless elements who are Moros, but they are not representative of the vast majority of the Moros who are law abiding, faithful followers of Islam, loves America or at least, American adherence to the principles of democracy. These Moros are part of mainstream society in the Philippines and abroad.
  4. Philippine Muslims are generally marginalized, their original ancestral landholding have been reduced to around 15% after most were awarded to non-Moro settlers, mostly during the martial law years under President Marcos, a regime seen to be supported by America.
  5. Philippine Muslims have also been economically marginalized; the Philippine Muslim Region is the poorest in the Philippines, and 2nd only to Bangladesh as of 2 years ago.
  6. Education wise, out of every 100 Moro kids that go to elementary, only 13 finish high school, and four go to college.
  1. I must say though, that we Muslim leaders are not blameless. In fact, we Philippine Muslim leaders carry that responsibility, and we had grossly failed in doing our role to take the lead in improving the lives of our people.
  2. There's a way to respond to legitimate grievances in a preventive, proactive manner. My experience has shown that sustainable economic development can be the key to peace.

Let me now talk about the Datu Paglas experience.

Attracting foreign investment by multinational corporations into conflict areas is difficult but it can be done. With the right vision, the private sector can play a significant role in helping to alleviate poverty. This is through a sustainable way of business-for-profit giving jobs to people particularly the rebels and lawless elements, making lands productive, helping feed the poor. But first, businesses must recognize the need to modify the traditional approach, which is satisfying the requisite "peace first before investment." I would argue that we need to invest first in the poorest communities before we can attain peace.

You have seen my story in the video. It has changed the lives of thousands of people who in the past were in state of hopelessness, or were tools of rebellion and criminality.

People often ask, what made the "Datu Paglas Story" happen? My short answer is leadership plus of course, the recognition that time for change has come. How did "leadership" play a role in my town's unique story? It started with the realization that the life of my people must change for the better. But then, that change must also start with myself, the leader. Then, private investments, which I know was the sustainable way to economic development, must come in. Then, for investments to come in, I must have a "business plan."

My elders, and in particular my dear late uncle Hashim Salamat, former Chairman of the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, who returned to our Creator 2 years ago, said I must do three things to get his support for investments. I adopted these three things as Guiding Principles in my "business plan."

  1. Protect the environment at any cost because this is all we have for the next generations;
  2. Do not abuse the workers, protect their rights and look after their welfare and safety; and lastly,
  3. Provide education for the children.

The Third Principle particularly, is very personal to me. I will continue to invest in the future of our children. I have seen this myself, that poverty and economic inequality are a fertile breeding ground for terrorism, environmental degradation, moral decay and other destructive consequences. But a healthy and well-educated generation will be the most powerful tool against rebellion and terrorism, and for the preservation of earth's resources. As the saying of the Wise goes, we did not simply inherit this world from our parents, the better truth is that: we merely borrowed this world from our children. Modesty aside, I was not born poor although ever since my younger days I had always found natural affinity with the house helpers, drivers and bodyguards of my parents. And because of that, I had seen the glaring divide that separated the Muslim nobilities from the common families. I protested the norms where the leadership of the ruling clans put their interest over the most basic concerns of those in poverty. As my father's successor, I vowed to use the influence of my family to make a difference in our community because I was tired of seeing the same vicious cycle of violence and poverty. I wanted to try something new because the traditional Muslim way of leading our people was not working. It worked for the elite Muslim families and the politicians. But it never worked for our people.

I also learned that I had to change the rules of the game:

  1. When the convention dictates that the Datus - or members of the local royal families are the only people who can make sound decisions for the people, I encouraged dialogue and consensus among local folks. By doing so, we share the accountability to make things work for all of us.
  2. Philippine Muslim culture is basically very exclusive. I challenged that by bringing everyone's concerns on the table - those from the government, the military, the religious leaders, the workers, the rebels and even the lawless elements because I believed that what each of these groups had to say is of great value.
  3. We often had difficulty welcoming new ideas and new ways. We did not want outsiders in our territory. But again, this system did not work for us. Therefore, I invited NGOs and the academe to work with us so that we could learn how to invest in our future through training, skills building, values formation and education. We built partnerships with as many groups as possible, regardless of culture, faith, and ideologies. In my plantation, I have executives from abroad and my chief technology officers are from Israel.
  4. I was brought up in a culture where guns and goons define a Man's status in society. I challenged that convention. At first, I was not comfortable because it was "not the normal thing" to go around town without my bodyguards. But, I decided to put an end to that fashion because the old ways were not working for others. My personal campaign took a toll on me. I lost my father and 3 brothers due to violence, before I could demonstrate to the rest that we don't need guns.
  5. I was brought up in a culture of "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth." Throughout my growing years, I was witness to vengeance killings among clans, perpetuated throughout the succeeding generations. In the pursuit of my "business plan", and inspired "ironically" by my late uncle former MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat, I decided that this "culture of hatred" and violence must stop. Therefore, when my father and younger brothers became murder victims, I decided to accept that it was their fate, their time had come, and God Had Allowed it to happen and I must forgive. I decided not to put the law into my own hands; I left justice to the authorities.

Today we are starting to reap the fruits of our labor and faith for a better future. By way of infusing at least $400,000 dollars to the local economy every month in the form of salary versus almost nothing in the past, we are able to change the picture of Paglas town from war zone to economic zone.

For me, the bigger challenge is how to sustain the gains. And my simple but honest response to this is to continue to listen to what other people have to say, and learn from the wisdom of their stories, as they gave me great inspiration to continue to improve, to be a better leader.

The investment that we established in Datu Paglas allowed us Muslims to prove our worth, whether it be as a leader, as a follower, as an employer, as a worker, as a professional, or simply as a responsible citizen in our communities. We earned the trust of our investors. A year ago, they conveyed their approval of up to U.S. $50 million additional investment to expand our operations by 2,300 more hectares in the so-called "risky" Muslim Area.

Our expansion areas had been in the headlines because of the armed conflict between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and plain lawlessness (for example, just three years ago, in Bumbaran town of Lanao del Sur province, where our highland banana expansion is underway, there was a truckload of 20 Christian settlers who were massacred). Now, this town is looking forward to having its own share of peace and prosperity. This new investment and development means employing at least 3,000 more people and many rebels took advantage of the opportunity to be in the mainstream workforce.

Can the Datu Paglas story be replicated? Definitely. As a matter of fact it is already happening. During the past few years, I sense a general awakening among leaders in the Philippine Muslim Region, particularly the emerging new generation of young, better educated, more exposed to the progress in the outside world, children of traditional leaders.

I want to close with a few thoughts that reflect the wishes of many Moros back home:

  1. For CFR to please make it a special project to review the Philippine Muslim situation, with today's dialogue as our backdrop. The CFR can help define the meaning of preventive action against terrorism as a better way of responding to the grievances of Muslims in the Philippines.
  2. There is one cruel memory that relates to the USA, called "Bud Dajo massacre" in the southernmost Philippine province of Sulu. According to our history, "more than a thousand people including women and children were killed" by American troops in the 1920's. This tragedy was resurrected in Philippine media around two years ago, during training exercises between the U.S. and Philippine military. I proposed to Dr. Tuminez during her visit to Sulu late last year that a healing process, a peace ceremony is held according to our tradition. Both the U.S. Institute of Peace and perhaps the CFR can play a role in making this happen.
  3. There is also a multi-party initiative that has just recently taken off the ground, called "The Mindanao Project." This was initiated by the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum and the Philippine Business for Social Progress. It envisions the creation of a Special Export Enterprise Zone in the Philippine Muslim Region. The concept is that the U.S.A., Canada, and the European Community would be asked to recognize the special needs of the region and allow its exports to enter their territories without import duties for a certain period. This initiative would provide an outstanding opportunity for the North American and the European Community to engage with an Islamic Community in common purpose, to help build peace thru economic development. This project is worthy of U.S. support.
  4. In his two letters to President Bush in January and May 2003, my late uncle, the former MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim invited the U.S. government to participate in the Peace Process between the Philippine government and the MILF. It is unfortunate that the U.S. has not been formally invited to the negotiating table. However, I think U.S. players should view the Peace Process, as something bigger than official negotiations. Thus, (a) when a rebel gets employed in the Paglas plantation or other projects, returns to and stays with his family, sends his children to school, and having tasted a normal life no longer carries his guns, that livelihood generation is part of the peace process; (b) when USAID and other international development agencies build roads and bridges, provides water, wells and livelihood assistance programs that helps the villagers thus changing their perception of the "anti-Muslim" Americans, those programs are part of the peace process; (c) when U.S. officials and dignitaries visit the remote areas of the Muslim regions and listen to the local Muslim villagers, a good number of whom are current of former guerillas or their families, those interactions should also be viewed as part of the peace process; and (d) when the American, European, and British Chambers of Commerce, along with others concerned get involved in a business-sector driven initiative to establish an Special Export Enterprise Zone, aimed at enabling major markets in Europe and the U.S.A. to give preferential treatment to products from the Philippine Muslim region, that should be viewed as part of the peace process.

I guess, what I'm trying to say is that the earlier mentioned interpersonal dynamics also touches the heart of the Philippine Muslims and may have an even greater felt effect of attaining peace than what is happening at the official negotiating table. In closing, I wish to say that the Muslims of the Philippines have a lot of good will for the United States. It is our hope that you can help address our legitimate grievances as a preventive strategy to avoid conflict, fight extremism, and help us live a more normal life.

Thank you and Good Day. Wassalamu Alaikum, May God bless all of us. Allahu-akbar, God is Great.