Remembering Datu Toto and Ka Tanny

Datu Toto Paglas (left) with Samuel Labang of the Rotary Club.
Photo from

Ninoy Aquino is flanked by the three Grand Old Men of the Opposition: Senator Lorenzo Tanada, Senator Jovito Salonga, and Senator Gerry Roxas. Photo taken during the trial of Ninoy.
Photo from

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 08/09/2008

THE TIMING IS UNCANNY. DAYS BEFORE the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao elections marred by the threat of violence over the issue of autonomy and ancestral domain, a youthful champion and symbol of the new generation of Filipino Muslim leadership passed away.

Ibrahim Paglas III, better known among his family and people as “Datu Toto,” was just 47 when he died after being confined at the Davao Doctors Hospital due to meningitis.

He is best known as a businessman who showed the way for previously backward, neglected Muslim-dominated areas by turning his town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao into an agribusiness center. This he did by convincing former MILF rebels to abandon their arms and work alongside ordinary farmers as well as Christians in a banana plantation. He then enticed foreign investors to put up the capital for the processing plants and agribusiness technology (including innovative drip irrigation systems from Israel) that turned “La Frutera,” a joint venture with Saudi, Italian and American companies into a huge success.

I met “Datu Toto” some years back when I joined a media group brought over by the Knowledge Channel for the inauguration of a project employing satellite technology to bring educational TV programs to public schools in Datu Paglas. He proved to be a charismatic, compelling figure, touring us around the banana processing plant and pointing out a mosque he had built in the workers’ compound. “When a man makes time to pray, he has less time to fight,” was his simple explanation for the project.

Last year, Datu Toto’s sister, Bai Norah Paglas, was part of a Filipino group on a study tour of Israel, where I took part, too. Working closely with her brother on their many ventures, Bai Norah was distressed by the twin shocks of rising oil prices and the falling dollar, simultaneously raising production costs and reducing peso earnings, exacerbated by a virus that attacked their banana plants. I don’t know how the Paglas Group is doing now, but with Datu Toto gone, I can only hope that Bai Norah finds the strength to cope with the continuing crisis.

* * *

BUT Datu Toto was aware that economic and social success in a single town or province within the ARMM would not be enough to create lasting peace in Mindanao. The economic and developmental benefits of peace and prosperity would have to be sustained by good governance and social amity.

Datu Toto ran twice for ARMM governor and lost both times, perhaps because he was determined to forge an independent path—independent from the dictates of the ruling administration or of entrenched political interests—for himself and his people.

Samira Gutoc, a freelance journalist from whose article on Datu Toto I picked up some details, wrote that “he represented the youthful dynamism of the region … advocating business development, employment and education in ARMM.”

Perhaps, given his ties to both old-time political elites in Mindanao (his mother is a Pendatun, niece of the late Sen. Salipada Pendatun) and to rebel groups (he is a nephew of MILF founder Hashim Salamat), and his own personal charisma, Datu Toto would have played a decisive role in bridging the gaps of misunderstanding and misperception of the stalled peace talks, especially the controversial Memorandum of Agreement.

But it may not be too late to take up the slack left by the passing of Datu Toto. I am confident emerging Mindanaoan leaders, Muslim, Christian or lumad, will take up where he left off, though he will be sorely missed.

* * *

ALSO sorely missed is the great nationalist and human rights champion, former Sen. Lorenzo M. Tañada, whose 110th birth anniversary we observe today.

Now more than ever we feel the lack of statespersons of “Ka Tanny’s” caliber who let nothing—not threats to his freedom, not ostracism by his colleagues, not even age or impairment—prevent him from doing what he thought was right and fighting for rightness. Or as another (surviving) Grand Old Man of Philippine Politics, former Sen. Jovito Salonga put it: “To Tanny, it is not a case of my government, right or wrong, but rather my government when right, to be kept right and when wrong, to be made right.”

His enduring public image will always be that of an old man with a shock of white hair and leaning on a cane, with his son Bobby behind him lending a supporting presence, taking his place in the front line of many a violently-dispersed rally. I was covering one such rally near the “Welcome” Rotunda in Quezon City, and it took my breath away watching Ka Tanny, along with another old man, Chino Roces, enduring the water cannons directed at them as they steadfastly linked arms with other leaders of the “parliament of the streets.”

* * *

TAKE note that at this time of his life, Tañada had no need for any more public acclaim and/ or popularity. In fact, everyone would have understood if he folded his arms and said: “I’ve done my part, let others take the lead. By the time martial law was declared in 1972, he had retired from the Senate after having served an unprecedented 24 years as a legislator, and even longer as a public servant.

In fact—as a letter to him by Ninoy Aquino pointed out—Ka Tanny was abroad when martial law was declared; but instead of a comfortable retirement in foreign shores, he chose to go back home and pick up the reins of the scattered and incarcerated political opposition.

Blessed with a long, fulfilling life and an enduring marriage, Ka Tanny lived long enough to see democracy restored and the Senate voting out the US bases, a cause he had championed even as a young nationalist. His was a life to be envied, emulated and celebrated, even many years hence.


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