Growing up in Sulu five decades ago, Nabil Tan remembers joining his Christian neighbors in celebrating Christmas.
In turn Christians joined their Muslim neighbors in early morning prayer for Ramadan, and in the meals after sunset.
Tan, a Tausug Muslim, was educated by the Maris Brothers at the Notre Dame Catholic School from kindergarten to first grade, and then in high school. From grades two to six, he studied at the Philippine Muslim College.
American teachers at Notre Dame made the students recite both Catholic and Muslim prayers at morning assembly.
At the 5th Regional Interfaith Dialogue held last week in the Western Australian capital of Perth, where Tan headed the 11-member Philippine delegation, he told Christian participants that he still remembered all the Catholic prayers of his childhood.
Half a century ago in predominantly Muslim Sulu, the social interaction of Tan’s large family (he has 11 siblings) with Christians was not considered unusual.
Muslims in Pakistan told me a similar story when I visited that country. They exchanged gifts during Christmas and studied in Catholic schools.
For the Pakistanis, things changed when religion was used as a weapon for political power.
In Sulu, now one of the most dangerous conflict areas in the country, Tan says things changed in 1974, when Nur Misuari brought his secessionist war to his home province, with government forces in hot pursuit.
The capital, Jolo, was razed to the ground in February 1974, including the home and rice dealership of Tan’s family. But even before the burning of Jolo, businessmen, many of them Chinese Filipinos who were in the copra and abaca trade, had already started leaving the province as Misuari’s violent secession, which erupted in Marawi City shortly after the declaration of martial law in 1972, threatened to engulf Sulu.
Commerce in the province, which Tan says used to produce the best abaca (even better than the product of Bicol, he swears), slowed to a trickle. Local jeepney maker Sarao abandoned its plan to set up a factory in the province.
Since then no major company has stepped in as investors worry about the security of their businesses in a hotbed of banditry and extremist violence.
Even the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Conference, though involved in the peace process in Mindanao, are not investing in business or development projects in the province. Tan told me that if only the 20 richest OIC member states would invest $2 billion of their petrodollars in job-generating enterprises, it could jumpstart development in the conflict areas of Mindanao.
Tan, whose half-brother Sakur is now governor of Sulu, believes like many others that the military solution to peace and order problems must be complemented by development and livelihood opportunities.
Ferdinand Marcos unleashed the full might of his authoritarian regime on Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Tan pointed out. “Did we win?”
“You can kill me, but you can never kill an idea,” Tan told me. “In conflict resolution, you have to address the roots of the conflict.”
* * *
Those roots are grounded in social injustice, in bad governance and the lack of basic services.
Tan has been involved in conflict resolution for the past 17 years, mainly with the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, where he is now the deputy, and as vice governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The OPAPP was created following nationwide consultations when the late Haydee Yorac chaired the National Unification Commission.
As ARMM vice governor, Tan had helped negotiate peace with Misuari and the MNLF. But Tan believes that alongside peace negotiations, the government must give equal attention to addressing the needs of those affected by the conflict. There is a “moral hazard,” he told me, in neglecting those needs and focusing chiefly on negotiations with those who take up arms. Law-abiding citizens will ask: “Do we need to become rebels to get your attention?”
“Why not focus on us, on the people, on the community? You can’t address the roots of the conflict if you don’t address the larger pie, the community,” he said.
Investors both foreign and local have told me that despite efforts to improve the peace and order situation in the conflict areas, backed by security and development assistance from the Americans, Australians, Canadians, the European Union, Japan and the World Bank, they still worried about the security of their investments and safety of their employees. Periods of calm they consider merely lulls in the violence. How long can those periods last?
A viable approach, Tan says, is a one-time massive infusion instead of the current trickle of investments in livelihood and development, with the impact felt deeply and quickly. Showing communities the dividends of peace deprives rebels of mass support.
Tan’s half-brother the Sulu governor is asking the national government to invest P300 million in developing another port in Maimbung, as an alternative to the congested port in downtown Jolo 16 kilometers away, to revitalize economic activity.
The governor also wants to develop a beach resort in Panglima Tahil town. Though others laugh at the prospect of tourism in Sulu, I have visited the province and I know it truly has tourism potential.
Nabil Tan points out that Sulu’s distinctive culture and the faith of its population, a minority in this country, should add to the appeal of the province.
In other countries such as New Zealand, there are discussions about the role played by “spiritual capital” and “new forms of wealth” arising from religious diversity.
Manuka Henare, associate dean of the University of Auckland’s Business School, where about half of the students are foreigners, said that the religious dynamic in his country’s dealings with Southeast Asia could inspire innovation and spur trade.
Henare, a Maori, told us in Perth that their students in Auckland are being taught the importance of spiritual capital alongside economic and human capital in trade and business.
In the conflict areas of Mindanao, any effort to spur trade must take into consideration concerns about security in a region where kidnapping for ransom is a flourishing cottage industry.
Though the peace process has dragged on for decades, Tan is not losing hope.
“You have to be realistic that it’s an evolving process,” he said. “It’s not a destination, it’s a journey.”