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Preventive Action: Responding to the Grievances of Muslims in the Philippines


Shalom, Assalamu Alaikum, Peace of God Be Upon Humanity…. Greetings of Peace and Goodwill to the kind members of the Council on Foreign Relations and other distinguished participants to this dialogue, as well as every one else who may hereafter take genuine interest in this Message.

I first sincerely thank Mr.Richard Haass, CEO of CFR, for this opportunity that I have of conveying before this very prestigious body, my thoughts, echoing those of the many who share the same concern discussed in this paper.

I particularly thank Dr. Astrid Tuminez, for her having initiated my participation in this dialogue. In December last year, she and a fine American gentleman from the US Embassy 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 fondness for Americans, I am sure, that the Muslim villagers extended to them. I also thank CFR Senior Fellow Mr. David L. Phillips for his having kindly given time to this dialogue.

I also wish to make a special acknowledgement to Mr. Washington SyCip a highly revered captain of industry, a mentor and model to many including myself, who I understand also sits on the International Board of Advisers of the CFR. Mr. SyCip had kindly been taking interest in the plight of the Philippine Muslims, and had kindly been giving me personal (I take as fatherly) advices with respect to my peace and development initiatives in Mindanao.

And not the least, I thank Eisenhower Fellowships, my Program Officer Ms. Shelley Preston in particular, for all the opportunity it has given me, in promoting my personal advocacy for lasting peace thru sustainable economic development in the Philippine Muslim Region.

Everyday, we see a lot of the usual bad news on television, read discouraging news in the papers. Not many people have the chance to learn about the good news, thus as a consequence fail to take part in creating the good news.

I feel very privileged to represent a particularly unique story in a conflict zone in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines, referred to by foreign observers like the United Nations as “The Datu Paglas Story”. Modesty aside, this story shares some good news about Mindanao, as opposed to the usual news about bombings, kidnapping, and the guerilla war, to name some. The Wall Street Journal (in April 2002) is one of those who had written a quite comprehensive report about this Story.

I am pleased about the above-stated title for this dialogue. Yes, as the Wise would say, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. In our businesses, we adopt standard operating procedures like preventive maintenance. After 9/11, the so-called “Muslim problem” have 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 rebellion, lawlessness, and violence up in the mountains when they should be IN schools?

And perhaps most important, how do we relate with those who genuinely feel wronged for generations, whose feelings of hurt and 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”, that we Philippine Muslims need not “condemn the great white man” and declare him “enemy or evil” just because the USA was pointed to as “instrumental” in what is now the marginalization of Philippine Muslims? I agree with Dr. Tuminez that we should no longer live in the past, that we need to already go beyond the “victim mentality” and rather, we need to move on to the “self-help, winning, forward-looking” mindset. Still, it is very important that legitimate grievances not be ignored if there’s a chance to address them. It is my wish that the CFR may play a vital role if only to help positively confront the issue on global terrorism, by bringing would-be terrorists, rebels, and other lawless elements, into the mainstream society, via the sustainable way….economic development as key to lasting peace and harmony among cultures, faiths, beliefs, creeds, nations.

What then is the sort of preventive action that we, or if I may say the USA, may consider, in order to respond to the legitimate grievances of Muslims in the Philippines?

With your kind indulgence, let me make this proposal to the Council on Foreign Relations, for the CFR to please conduct a special study that may adopt the very same title of our dialogue today.

I submit that the proposed study, should it hopefully be considered, take into account the following important points:

  1. This proposed study recognizes the need to address squarely the American concern about “terrorism among the Muslims” in the Philippines;
  2. There are legitimate grievances that have not been addressed. This has its historical roots, reference of which maybe made to a document called “Declaration of Rights and Purposes Addressed To the Congress of the United States of America”, signed by Muslim leaders in Mindanao, on February 01, 1924. Another reference is a document titled “Petition to the President of the United States of America, from the People of the Sulu Archipelago” in June 09, 1921. (Appendix C & D, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny, Salah Jubair);
  3. True, there are lawless elements who are Moros, ironically a good number of these are instruments and tools of non-Moro “principals”, and if I may put it quite bluntly, some of these principals seemingly don’t want Amerrica to play a constructive role in the ARMM. But these “Moros” however, are not representative of the vast majority of us who are law abiding, faithful followers of Islam, loves America or at least, the American adherence to the principles of democracy that even my late uncle, the former MILF Chairman Salamat, regards very highly. These are the Moros who live peacefully and lawfully within mainstream society in the Philippines and abroad;
  4. We Philippine Muslims are generally marginalized, our original patrimony (landholdings in Southern Philippines), have been reduced to around 15% after most were awarded to non-Moro settlers, mostly during the martial law years, a regime participated in by some of my trusting elders, and seen to be supported by America;
  5. Philippine Muslims have also been economically marginalized, the Philippine Muslim Region is the poorest in the country, and 2nd only to Bangladesh as of 2 years ago. And the situation has not been improving;
  6. Education wise, out of every 100 that go to elementary, only 13 finish high school, and at most 4 go to college;
  7. 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. That would be another subject. Meantime this presentation wish to focus on what role America may play on the subject of today’s dialogue.
  8. There’s a way to respond to legitimate grievances in a preventive, constructive manner. A certain experience had unintentionally shown that sustainable economic development can actually attain lasting peace. Yes, it can serve as a preventive action to respond to the legitimate grievances of Muslims in the Philippines.

Attracting foreign investment by multinational corporations into conflict areas remains to be a major challenge. The Datu Paglas Story shows that it can be done. The increasing number of observers, particularly from the international front, had seen that there is renewed hope for the private sector to play an increasingly significant role in helping to alleviate poverty, the sustainable way of business for profit giving jobs to people particularly the rebels and lawless elements, making lands productive, helping to feed the world and equally if not most importantly, effectively help to eliminate a fertile breeding ground for terrorism and other forms of lawlessness. More and more focus is now put in recognizing the business sense of investing in “conflict zones”,. Moreover, businesses may also recognize the need to modify the traditional approach, which is satisfying the requisite “peace first before investment”. Investments in the poorest communities may indeed help attain lasting peace, preserve the environment, educate the children, etc.

You have seen my story in the video. It may not be an extraordinary story. But, it changed the lives of thousands of people who in the past were in state of hopelessness, or tools of rebellion and criminality.

People often ask, what made the “Datu Paglas Story” happen? May the succeeding portions of this message help answer that question. I sum them basically as leadership plus of course, the recognition that its time 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, had the following three things to say which I then adopted as Guiding Principles when I formulated my “business plan”, which basically was my decision to let investments come in:

  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.

These three Guiding Principles, integrated into my basic personal responsibility to also wholeheartedly support the interest of my investors, seeked to ensure better attainment of the company’s CSR and sustainability agenda, particularly with regards the environment. (You may appreciate knowing that my investors are working on Certifications like ISO 14000, Rainforest Alliance, SA 8000, OHSAS 18000, ISO 9000, HACCP, and Integrated Management Systems). Paglas Corporation is also a signatory to the Global Compact Initiative of the United Nations.

The Third Principle particularly, is very personal to me, as I believe it is to all of you also. 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, and other destructive consequences. But a healthy and well-educated generation will be the most positive and powerful tool against 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 us, 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 if I may fulfill my mission to BRIDGE the economic, social, and political divide among and even within, the tri-peoples in Mindanao (Muslims, Christians, and Highlanders):

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • We the local “royal families” and other Muslim leaders in general, 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 and 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, ideologies, to hasten the progress we deserve and dreamed for.
  • 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 and for me either. My personal campaign took a toll on me. I lost my father and 3 brothers due to violence and lawlessness, before I could demonstrate to the rest that we don’t need guns. Other traditional and political leaders, a good number of them are my relatives, are still relentless. But I keep the faith that in due time they will change.
  • 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 (we call “RIDO”) among clans, perpetuated throughout the succeeding generations. In the pursuit of my “business plan”, and inspired “ironically” by my late uncle former MILF Chairman Salamat, I decided that this “culture of hatred and cycle of 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, God Had Allowed it to happen and I must forgive and put to an end that cycle of vengeance. I decided not to put the law into my own hands, I left justice to the duly constituted 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 were able to change the life of Paglas town from a war zone to economic zone.

For me, the bigger challenge is always how to sustain the gains and replicate the Paglas Experience. 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, to the surprise of many, the “risky” Muslim Region.

The expansion areas, just like Paglas years ago, 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 3 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 it may interest you to know that rebels took advantage of the opportunity to be in the mainstream workforce thus have the chance to live normal lives with their families.

I take this occasion to thank my foreign investors from the USA (Chiquita Brands International), Italy, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the technical experts from Israel and other countries (the Plantation Director at the La Frutera plantation is a Panamanian), for their faith that Muslim areas in the Philippines can host foreign investments.

The only reason I tell my story is because I have been prevailed upon by well meaning friends and observers from around the world, that I must share it in order that people will understand what made the Paglas Experience happen. Can it be replicated? Definitely yes, as a matter of fact it is already, although still just, beginning to happen. During the past few years, there is clearly 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 wish to reiterate my wish, echoing those of many from back home, which I am now conveying to the CFR and all others concerned, as an APPEAL:

  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 output may prompt concerned sectors in the USA and abroad, to be guided by policies more attuned to preventive action against terrorism, as a better way of responding to the legitimate 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 documented history, “more than a thousand people including women and children were killed” by American troops in the 1920’s. This tragedy was resurrected, was widely publicized in media around 2 years ago, during the then forthcoming training exercises between the U.S. and Philippine military. Obviously, some sectors, including non-Muslims, did not mind that those segments of history which are better forgotten, had to be unnecessarily resurrected, just like looking back at the scars of a healed but once-upon-a-time very painful wound. I proposed to Dr. Tuminez during her visit to Sulu late last year, that a healing process, a peace ceremony be held according to our tradition. This maybe proposed by a group of Philippine Muslims advocating for peace, and U.S. counterparts shall be invited, led by the U.S. Institute of Peace. I may submit a separate memorandum to the CFR and USIP principally, regarding this subject.
  3. The CFR may help gather support for a multi-party initiative that has just recently taken off the ground, called The Mindanao Project. This was initiated as Prime Movers, by the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum, the Manila British Community led by recently retired British Ambassador Paul Dimond, and the Philippine Business for Social Progress. This 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 and imperatives of the Region and allow its exports to enter their territories without the imposition of import duties and taxes for a certain period. A full report on this maybe submitted separately to all potential co-players to this initiative, which had already the benefit of prior concept discussions with certain personalities in the National Foreign Trade Council, Philips Van Heusen, USIP, US State Department, Deloitte-Washington, British Embassy in Manila, to name some. It is my intention to personally bring this to the attention of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, USAID, The Global Philantropists’ Circle thru the Synergos Institute, and other organizations that I shall be visiting during the course of my Fellowship. The success of these initiatives provides outstanding opportunity for the North American and the European Community to engage with an Islamic Community in common purpose, to help if not spearhead, the building of peace thru economic development.
  4. In his 2 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 (President Bush had kindly mentioned it in his address to the joint session of the Philippine Congress during his visit to Manila 2 years ago). Many including myself, consider it unfortunate that the U.S. involvement was limited to being “observers only” at the negotiating table, although Ias I understand the U.S.A. would have been willing to play a bigger role. I had shared my thoughts with Dr. Tuminez, that the U.S. government should not allow itself to be limited by any country or party or situation, as it tries to fulfill an overdue role in history, that it realizes it should already play. I had therefore proposed to her, that America should now officially define the Peace Process in the Philippine Muslim Region, at least from the standpoint of its more meaningful and substantive involvement, as not only what is happening at the negotiating table, but the overall scope of happenings in the ARMM. The CFR may play a role in pointing this out to the concerned policy makers of the U.S. government. Thus,
  • When a rebel get 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 direct livelihood generation should be part of the peace process.
  • When USAID and other international development agencies build roads and bridges, provides water, wells, education for very remote villages like the satellite based program TEAM-Mindanao of USAID in cooperation with Knowledge Channel Foundation, and livelihood assistance programs that helps the villagers thus changes their perception of the “anti-Muslim” Americans, those programs that directly benefit the children of poor families in the villages should be viewed as part of the peace pocess.
  • When HE Ambassador Ricciardone or Madam Shari Villarosa of the US State Department, or Dr. Astrid Tuminez of the USIP, or other dignitaries and guests visit the remote areas of the Muslim Region and listen to the local Muslim villagers, a good number of whom are MILF or MNLF members or their families, those interactions at the village levels should also be viewed as part of the peace process.
  • When the American, European, and British communities, along with others concerned get involved in a business-sector driven initiative to establish an Special Export Enterprise Zone in ARMM, aimed at enabling major markets in Europe and the U.S.A. to give preferential treatment to products from the Philippine Muslim Region, which should help hasten sustainable economic development as key to lasting peace In ARMM, that initiative 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 does the same, in fact more, felt effect of attaining peace directly at the mass-base level. This also contributes positively, as a parallel effort, to the understandably political nature thus often times conflicting positions of “contending parties” at the negotiating table.

In closing, I wish to say that there is an increasing number of us Philippine Muslims who recognize that we should no longer live in the past. We can only focus our best on the present. Today is most important and what we decide on today will help to determine our tomorrow. I wish this belief of ours, be applied to the subject of what preventive actions we take as we try to give our best response to the legitimate grievances of Muslims in the Philippines. Thank you and Good Day.

Wassalamu Alaikum, May God Bless all of us.

Allahu-akbar, God is Great.