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Asia's 'Nobel Prize' honors 'modern-day heroes'

Ramon Magsaysay Award winners leaders in fight against graft, poverty

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: August 16, 2018 09:21 AM GMT
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Asia's 'Nobel Prize' honors 'modern-day heroes'

Philippine President Benigno Aquino (fourth from left) shares the stage with the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay award winners (from left) Kommaly Chanthavong from Laos; Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa of the Philippines; Anshu Gupta from India; Sanjiv Chaturvedi from India; and Kyaw Thu from Myanmar on Aug. 31. (Photo by Benhur Arcayan)

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An Indian public servant who dedicated his life fighting government corruption, a Burmese actor who offered free funeral services to the poor, and a woman who revived Lao silk weaving are among this year's recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

"You are modern-day heroes that not only Filipinos, but all men and women all over the world need," said Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who presented the awards in Manila on Aug. 31 — Philippine National Heroes Day.

"You have all faced formidable opponents, from corrupt employees and officials in government, to the phenomenon of widespread poverty and inequality," Aquino told the award winners.

"You were not daunted; you have persevered, and continued to persevere, in order to protect justice, basic human rights, and our cultural heritage," the Philippine president added.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award, one of Asia's highest honors, was established in 1957 to celebrate the memory of the third Philippine president after whom it is named. The first awards were handed out in 1958.

The award is given every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who manifest "selfless service".

This year's winners included Kommaly Chanthavong of Laos, who was recognized for "her fearless, indomitable spirit to revive and develop the ancient Laotian art of silk weaving, creating livelihoods for thousands of poor, war-displaced Laotians, and thus preserving the dignity of women and her nation's priceless silken cultural treasure".

Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa from the Philippines was honored for "her single-minded crusade in preserving the endangered artistic heritage" of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, and in "creatively propagating a dance form that celebrates and deepens the sense of shared cultural identity among Asians".

Anshu Gupta from India was recognized for "his creative vision in transforming the culture of giving in India, his enterprising leadership in treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor, and in reminding the world that true giving always respects and preserves human dignity".

Gupta left a lucrative job to establish Goonj, a volunteer organization that empowers the poor through the redistribution and processing of cloth to fit all kinds of needs.


'A greatness of spirit'

Kyaw Thu, a popular and award-winning actor in Myanmar, was recognized for "his generous compassion in addressing the fundamental needs of both the living and the dead".

In 2001, Kyaw Thu founded the Free Funeral Services Society in Yangon to help ease the burden on the poor in properly burying their dead. The organization has grown to become not only a provider of free funeral services but also a whole series of social services. 

Sanjiv Chaturvedi was recognized for "emergent leadership" in India and for "his exemplary integrity, courage and tenacity in uncompromisingly exposing and painstakingly investigating corruption in public office, and his resolute crafting of program and system improvements to ensure that government honorably serves the people of India".

Chaturvedi, an Indian Forest Service official, investigated and exposed corruption cases involving government officials.

In six years, he exposed anomalies that included the illegal construction of a canal that threatened the critical Saraswati Wildlife Sanctuary; the use of public funds to develop an herbal park on private land owned by a high official; and the rigging of government auctions.

Carmencita Abella, president of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, said the winners "are truly stoking fresh hopes for a better Asia".

"They are creating bold solutions to deeply-rooted social problems in their respective societies, problems which are most damaging to the lives of those trapped in poverty, ignorance, prejudice, and unjust systems," Abella said.

She said one thing all this year's award winners share is "a greatness of spirit that infuses their crusade for change".

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