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The man who couldn’t wait for peace

article from: Graphic Magazine

In thriving Datu Paglas town, enrollment has tripled and youthful dreams have shifted from war exploits to scenes of upward mobility.

“He’s a Datu?”

Heads swiveled and tongues buzzed at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) as a young man stalked through an exhibit of good corporate governance practices.

The question it self highlighted subtle Christian bias. What’s datu supposed to look like anyway?

Still, even without his title, Datu Ibrahim Paglas, former mayor of the town that bears his family name and the only Muslim to have broken into the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) circle, would turn heads.

Tall and rangy, in a close fitting white shirt, denim pants, boots, Paglas looked more like one of Mindanao’s Christian cowboys --- urbane owners of vast ranches --- than the orphaned drop out forced to take on the mantel of leadership in what was once the baddest of Mindanao’s bad lands.

The next day, speaking before corporate do-gooders, he was in a chic if rumpled barong, looking like any fast-rising executive.

Paglas is an executive, with powers urban CEOs may envy. He is also a land-owner, a major one. And like all scions of a violent land, he has cracked the whip hard.

Yet here, the stereotyped ends. The 41-year old Paglas has lived a life both tragic and wacky, and amazingly blessed with good luck. He has not only survived, but triumphed too in the vortex of violence and Byzantine politics. In the process, he has transformed a blood-drenched land into one of Mindanao’s growth areas.


Luck may have helped him. But even critics grudgingly admit that Paglas’ penchant for sticking his neck out has worked wonders for his municipality and the cause of genuine Muslim autonomy.

“Toto”, as he is popularly known in Mindanao, has shown unbelievable cheek in pushing his beliefs.

His latest caper involved the surprise expansion of zones of peace in Maguindanao. Paglas, speaking in the presence of President Gloria Macapal – Arroyo, former President Corazon Aquino, and various stakeholders in the peace process, was supposed to read a letter from Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Hashim Salamat.

It was a formal letter, supporting efforts of Baranggay Inug-ug residents to establish a zone of peace.

An exhuberant Paglas, somehow managed to announce that the MILF was withdrawing, not from one village, but from four towns.

Immediately. There was an outpouring of praise. The only problem was, Salamat’s letter did not convey this message. A chagrinned Paglas would later admit: “In a sudden twist of emotion, after seeing the faces of my fellow Muslims, I did not immediately realize (that) I was already pouring out the yearnings of my heart”.

Almost like Forest Gump, that movie hero who does wrong things for the right reasons – and ends up a winner. It was hard for the hardened warriors of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the MILF to lambaste Paglas without sounding like world-class scrooges.

It is hard to muster cynicism when a barong-clad Paglas chuckles with glee as he recalls the episode. It is even harder to strike down his claim, that in almost all scrapes, it was Allah’s drumbeat calling him. Salamat, MILF aides say, has forgiven this favorite nephew. Military feign mock horror at Paglas’ name and then burst out laughing, settling down to a series of head shakes, Laughter in a world of tears and serendipity amid chaos seen to be staples in the former mayor’s charmed life.

Reversal of fortune

Stunts notwithstanding, Paglas’ fame lies more in the stunning reversal of fortune of his town.

Less than a decade back, the municipality of Datu Paglas was gripped in blood feuds, fighting between government and rebel troops, and regular forays by highway robbers, kidnappers, car thieves and criminals of all stripes.

Paglas grew up in that atmosphere. His parents were rebels of a sort, who courted the ire of feuding Pendatung and Paglas elders with their elopement.

Both clans are Muslim royalty and regional powers in Mindanao. The late Sen. Salipada Pendatun was Paglas’ grandfather. The clan war dates back to pre-World War 2 days. When war broke out, the Pendatuns sided with the Americans and the Paglases with the Japanese.

The birth of Ibrahim, the couple’s oldest son ended the feud.

But violence did not stop there. During Toto’s childhood, the town was the site of some of the finest fighting between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Even after Nur Misuari forged peace settlement with the government, Datu Paglas continued to churn out rebels, this time for the MILF.

Toto’s father was named OIC governor of Maguindanao province after the 1986 Edsa people power revolt. On the eve of his oath-taking, unknown men hurled a grenade into Paglas residence, killing Toto’s two-year old brother and seriously maiming the mayor, who died shortly after.

His mother, took the post. “The situation worsened”, says Toto.

In 1988, the 24-year old was persuaded by elders to assume leadership.

Nobody really expected much from Toto. After all, he was a wild one, who fathered a son by a Christian American-Spanish meztiza at 17. the incident had caused a scandal, forcing his irate pa to strip him of royalty privileges and drive him out of the ancestral home.

Toto lived with tenants. He farmed and lived in the most humbling environment. That, and Allah’s grace, he says, was the root of salavation.

He looked around, studied the Florendos, the Ayalas, the Dizons and asked: pareho naman tayo, may mata, may bibig, may tenga. Ba’t di natin magawa ang nagawa nila?”

Earning his spurs

The young mayor took firm steps tp halt spiral of violence. Using his status as Salamat’s nephew, he persuaded MILF commanders to rein in their troops. He went after criminals with a fierceness that stunned townsfolk.

Then, he started the harder job of persuading investors to come in. His first attempts were failures. Nobody wanted to deal with a green youth barely out of his teens. Nobody then believed he could keep the peace in Datu Paglas.

The town's reputation overshadowed its natural advantages--- lush land, a huge fresh water reservoir. There was a big and hungry labor pool but people wondered whether ex-rebels would make good workers.

The Southeast Asian Sugar Mill corporation finally invested in 1993, establishing a 300-hectare corporate farm.

Paglas preserved. Strangers came to the rescue. He managed to convince investors from Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United States (represented by Chiquita) to invest in La Frutera, a banana plantation.

Paglas used his clout to convince landowners to lease their properties --- at a fraction of market rates then.

To everyone’s surprise, the venture, established in 1996, took off. Within four years, Paglas sprang another surprise, bringing in an Israeli engineering firm to provide irrigation technology. La Frutera then broke the world record for heaviest bunch of bananas. In 2001, it exported 5.3 million boxes of bananas to China, South Korea, the Midlle East and Japan.

The town had industry. And an industry that chalked up positive health, safety and labor records, enough to bag a certificate from the Rainforest Action.

Even deposed president Joseph Estrada;s all-out war against MILF in 2000 failed to block Datu Paglas’ development. Salamat himself asked outraged ex-rebels to stay out of the fray, the better to show the world that Muslims would do as well in peace as in war. It wasn’t hard to convince La Frutera’s labor force to stay put.


By the time Toto stepped down as mayor 1998, La Frutera had 2,000 employees, Muslims and Christians living peacefully amid continuing inter-faith and ethnic dialogues. Enrollment in public elementary schools more than tripled and youthful dreams now shifted from war exploits to upward mobility.

The former bad land has scored a near zero crime rate since 1991 and its police force was nominated as one of the country’s best in 1997.

Muslim women have held their own, comprising 30% of the banana plantation workforce, rising to supervisory ranks.

In 1998, the town established a rural bank, with an initial loan portfolio of P8 million. Even then, some Toto’s relatives couldn’t quite believe their eyes. “Naloloko ka nab a?” (Are you going crazy?) was a frequent question when construction of the bank was underway.

Toto gave his standard reply, “Turo sa akin ni Allah”.

The bank helped establish 50 small enterprise. In three years, the client case had grown to 3,000 --- with a surprising 90% repayment rate on commercial and private loans.

Aside from the banana plantations, the town had grain-based and livestock cooperatives, the latter spinning off to cooperatives providing com forages for cattle.


Under Paglas leadership, the town was among the first municipalities to computerize for improved fiscal management leading to the region’s highest tax take in 1996 --- 669% of revenue target.

Townsfolk wanted to live quiet prosperity but word soon leaked out to a Mindanao starved of good news. Datu Paglas soon found itself hosting visiting local government executives and aid workers eager to learn the art of keeping the peace.

Paglas has won a Bayani Award from the ABS CBN foundation. He remains wary of speaking before big groups, still not quite confident oh his English, which is fractured but colorful and no hindrance to propagating lessons from the school hard knocks.

The banana plantation has just received a pledge of $40 million in expansion funds, and now Paglas is carrying the gospel of peace and development to Lanao del Sur.

And get this, 20 years from 1998, the consortium will be turning over the plantation to Datu Paglas residents.

All this because a 24-year old youth once declared that he would not wait for peace.