Established in 1957, the Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s highest honor and is widely regarded as the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
It celebrates the memory and leadership example of the third Philippine president after whom the award is named, and is given every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who manifest the same selfless service and transformative influence that ruled the life of the late and beloved Filipino leader.
“The Magsaysay awardees of 2015 are truly stoking fresh hopes for a better Asia. Clearly, 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. It is also clear that through their solutions each of these inspiring leaders is building more hopeful lives among their people—one smart, impassioned, and persistent step at a time,” expressed RMAF president Carmencita Abella on this year’s set of winners.
They are Kommaly Chanthavong of Laos, Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa of the Philippines, Anshu Gupta of India, Kyaw Thu of Myanmar, and Sanjiv Chaturvedi of India for Emergent Leadership. On August 31, the five honorees were formally conferred the Magsaysay Award. Each received a certificate, a medallion bearing the likeness of the late President, and a cash prize.
Held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the formal Presentation Ceremonies was led by no less than President Benigno Aquino 3rd himself.
“While their respective social causes and leadership solutions are uniquely their own, there is one thing this year’s Magsaysay laureates all share in common: a greatness of spirit that infuses their crusade for change. All are unafraid to take on large causes. All have refused to give up, despite meager resources, daunting adversity and strong opposition. Their approaches are all deeply anchored in a respect for human dignity, and a faith in the power of collective endeavor. We have much to learn from the 2015 Magsaysay awardees, and much to celebrate about their greatness of spirit,” Abella added.
Born into a farming family, Kommaly Chanthavong lived through all her country’s tragedies. Losing her father in the Indochina War, she was a refugee at age 13, walking barefoot over 600 kilometers from her village in eastern Laos to Vientiane to escape the bombings during the Vietnam War. Through sheer perseverance, she pursued her studies in Vientiane and in 1966 earned a nursing diploma; in 1972 she married and raised a family. After the communist takeover of Vientiane, life was extremely difficult and she had to walk long distances from village to village buying and selling goods between Laos and Thailand.
Through these turbulent changes, one thing remained constant for Kommaly—her love for silk weaving, which she learned from her mother when she was only five years old; in fact, fleeing her village in 1961 all she took with her were heirloom pieces of woven silk handed down from her grandmothers.
The soft-spoken Kommaly says of her decades-long work, “Our goal is to strengthen the position of women by giving them a dependable income and thus improve the chances of their children.” Clearly, she has done this—and much more.
Born to a prominent Catholic family in Marikina, Metro Manila, Fernando-Amilbangsa had always loved dance and the arts. A turning point in her life came when she married a schoolmate and moved to his home in Sulu where, in the next three decades, she immersed herself in the rich cultural life of the Muslim South.
In the midst of the region’s secessionist and insurgent conflicts, she turned her love for the arts into a vocation as cultural researcher, educator, artist and advocate of the indigenous arts of Sulu.
Her signature involvement has been the study, conservation, practice and promotion of the dance style called pangalay (“gift offering,” or “temple of dance” in Sanskrit), a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Tausug peoples of the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
In India, Anshu Gupta left his job in a well-known firm to devote himself to this task. His journey began in 1999, when he and his wife contributed 67 pieces of personal clothing for the use of the homeless during winter. This experience drew their attention to the vast quantities of underutilized cloth and other materials lying unused in India’s urban households, while many rural poor die because they do not have enough clothing.
Thus Gupta founded Goonj, a volunteer organization built on the powerful, life-changing lessons he learned: that much more than random disaster relief needed to be done; that better ways of mobilizing public concern and assistance had to be organized; and most importantly, that giving must put at the center the recipient’s rights and dignity rather than the giver’s goodness and satisfaction.
Goonj is now a movement working in 21 of India’s twenty-nine states, and is much more than a channel for clothing and other recycled articles. Through its staff, its thousands of volunteers, and numerous partner organizations, Goonj redistributes contributed items, and processes cloth and others to fit the identified needs of recipient groups.
Fifty-five-year-old Kyaw Thu is an exceptional figure in Myanmar’s process of democratization. He is a hugely popular, award-winning actor in Myanmar who has acted and directed in over two hundred films; scion of a wealthy family in the movie business, he is professionally successful and socially privileged. Yet, he lives simply and is a devout Buddhist.
In 2001, with a colleague in the movies, he founded Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS) in Yangon, to help relieve the emotional and financial burden of the poor in properly burying their dead. Caring not just for the dead but also for the living, FFSS opened a charity clinic manned by fifty volunteer doctors and a full staff. With five ambulances and 24-hour medical emergency response service, it offers services from maternal and dental care to blood transfusions and eye surgeries.
His work goes beyond simple philanthropy. He has lent his prominence to other causes: distributing food and water to protesting monks during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”; sending ambulances to aid student demonstrators recently protesting restrictive government policies; and publicly expressing his opinions on social issues. He and his wife have been detained; he was barred from filming or acting from 2007 to 2012; and FFSS has been harassed by authorities uneasy about Kyaw Thu’s influence.
All these have not deterred him; they have only further enhanced his moral authority.
In India, forty-year-old government officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi is an inspirational example. Coming from a family of civil servants, Chaturvedi joined the Indian Forest Service (IFS) because he loves interacting with people in the field and working in government. Posted as a divisional forest officer in Haryana state, Northern India, he quickly came face to face with the corruption infesting government. A young, idealistic officer, he did not turn away from the irregularities that he saw but resolutely worked to correct them.
Boldly, he investigated and exposed cases of malfeasance even when these involved powerful officials in the state. In his six years in the state cadre, he exposed anomalies which 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; the underpayment of license fees; and the rigging of government auctions.
Actions he has taken have bolstered government revenues, and resulted in the recovery of stolen public funds and the suspension or removal of erring officials.