If there is one person who understands the sufferings of people displaced by an ongoing war or armed conflict, she can be Gethsie Shanmugan of Sri Lanka who is now in the country to receive on Thursday evening the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Shanmugan, 83, is a veteran worker in conflict zones as she witnessed the almost three decades of the Sri Lanka civil war that left thousands dead, abused, tortured, detained and displaced. The war between Sinhalese and Tamil forces finally ended in 2009.
“I can feel that they are hurting. Love must reign among warring tribes. We should not label them because they are experiencing problems known only to them,” she told The Manila Times in an exclusive interview.
She was referring to evacuees from Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, who were displaced by fighting between government forces and the Maute Group terrorists that began in May.
“We must present ourselves as a go-between. We must not take sides. I am talking to you because you are labeled as such. That should not be. We talk to them because they are human beings because we want to give them the time to listen to them,” Shanmugan said.
More than 40,000 evacuees are now sheltered in various gymnasiums, schools and barangay (village) halls.
More than 250,000 residents of Marawi left the city and are now temporarily living with their relatives in various parts of the country, including Metro Manila.
Together with Shanmugan, the five others who will each receive a citation today at a ceremony to be held at Cultural Center of the Philippines are Yoshiaki Ishizawa of Japan, Lilia de Lima of the Philippines, Abdon Nababan of Indonesia, Tony Tay of Singapore and the Philippine Educational Theater Association of the Philippines.
According to the citation, the Ramon Magsaysay board of trustees recognizes Shanmugan’s compassion and courage in working under extreme conditions to rebuild war-scarred lives, her tireless efforts over four decades in building Sri Lanka’s capacity for psychological support and her deep, inspiring humanity in caring for women and children, who are regarded as the civil war’s most vulnerable victims.
“Genuine love is accepting people as they are. We do not know why they are doing something. Understanding them is a challenge but first, listen to them. Show them the compassion,” she said.
Shanmugan trained school teachers on handling traumatized children especially after the 2004 tsunami that left 31,000 confirmed dead.
“I feel I am not retired, I am just beginning,” she also told The Manila Times, saying what she actually does is for people to become happy.
“It is an awakening. Start again something,” she said.
According to Shanmugan, she is still in “shock” because she was not at all expecting to receive the award.
She said parents should develop the emotional side of the children.
Aside from physical and spiritual advancement, Shanmugan added, children must learn to express their emotion.
“Know yourself first. Ask yourself, ‘Who am I, why I am here?’ then accept yourself as you are, this is the first step. Then you will start accepting others, loving others. In the process, love and caring are everywhere and you will carry it, [making]your neighbors [feel it],” Shanmugan said.
She added that since there will be love, there will be no violence. “The highest form of love is sacrifice. We give time for our children.”
Shanmugan encourages people to take time in sitting in silence and do some breathing and exhaling exercises.
“Life is an emotional relationship. It does not start with marriage. It starts before the child is born, before the choice of partner. Every child must learn and appreciate the beauty of growing,” she said.
A first-time visitor to the Philippines, Shanmugan has authored books on migrant workers’ children, sexual abuse of adolescent girls, child-friendly teaching practices and war widows and children. She has earned many awards and citations and the Ramon Magsaysay Award but she said the Ramon Magsaysay Award is the “biggest and most prestigious”’ of them all.
Ramon Magsaysay after whom the Ramon Magsaysay Awards were named, was a former President of the Philippines who died in an airplane crash in the 1950s.
JAIME R. PILAPIL