Southeast Asia

'Asia's Nobels' unfazed by controversy
By Dino Manrique

MANILA - The 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Awards Presentation Ceremonies late last month were shaken by more than the usual dose of political controversy. Yet the spirit of the awards will live on. One need only look at this year's slate of awardees to understand why.

That is what Stephen Heintz has done. And he, perhaps, had more reason than most to take offense and let the controversy distract him from the purpose and achievements of the Magsaysay Awards, and of those honored by them.

Heintz is president of the Rockefeller Brothers' Fund (RBF), which was instrumental in the creation of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards more than 40 years ago. As the Philippine Star newspaper pointed out in a critical report about Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey, Heintz was at the award ceremony just one seat away from the 37-year-old Indian, who made headlines by calling the United States the "biggest terrorist state" in the world and, when challenged by the Philippine media, returned his prize money of 50,000 US-donated dollars.

The trustees of the RBF established the Ramon Magsaysay Awards in the late 1950s to honor individuals and organizations in Asia whose civic contributions and leadership "exemplify the greatness of spirit, integrity, and devotion to freedom of Ramon Magsaysay", a former president of the Philippines who died in a plane crash. The awards are sometimes referred to as Asia's Nobel Prizes.

Unfazed by Pandey's remarks, Heintz said in an interview: "One of the great things about this award is that it stands for democracy, freedom of speech, and the right of people to have their opinions. And actually, in many respects, Sandeep Pandey and I agree.

"I disagree with his characterization of the United States as a terrorist state, but I agree with him that many of the world's problems are caused by governments that believe that they are acting in the very best interest of the people, but often make mistakes, and so solving the problems makes the problems worse, and all of us in the government and the non-profit sector need to work together to create understanding, to build this recognition that we are all interdependent, and to work for peaceful resolutions of conflict."

Pandey, for his part, said that he had never meant to criticize the people of the United States but its government.

"The US government has definitely been at fault a number of times because it unilaterally decides to launch military strikes against smaller countries without going through the proper channel. If there is any military action to be taken against any state, the issue has to be first discussed at the Security Council," Pandey said. He went on, "Just as any form of terrorism is bad, and we condemn all acts of terrorism whether be it by the group of Osama bin Laden or militant groups within India, we also condemn the use of violence by the United States."

There was politics, too, surrounding the awardee for Community Leadership, Dr Cynthia Maung of Myanmar, yet here again the spirit of the awards shone through in an unexpected way. Maung, 42, has been treating victims of that country's ethnic conflicts for 14 years in Mae Sot, a sanctuary for Myanmese refugees on the Thai border. Maung organized "backpack medics" - trained health workers - who brought wounded people across the dangerous border.

Maung did not attend the award ceremonies in the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, fearing that Yangon's ruling military junta might not let her go back to her clinic, for she is a well-known supporter of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, Maung delivered her acceptance speech on video - with subtitles - projected on a big screen above the stage during the award ceremonies. Although Maung was missed, the symbolic import of the scene, with everyone tilting his head to listen to her speech, drove home the significance of what she was doing in her country.

Little wonder, then, although the people honored by the Magsaysay Awards are hardly the Hollywood or rock-star type, that the theater lobby was thronged by admirers, young and old, hovering around the awardees, congratulating them and having photos taken with them.

The Philippines' Hilario G Davide Jr, 66, chief justice of the Supreme Court, was the awardee for Government Service. He devoted his entire life to government service and, as chief justice, instituted reforms in the country's judiciary. As presiding judge in the impeachment trial of president Joseph Estrada, he impressed everybody with his wisdom and impartiality.

Dr Ruth Pfau, is a 72-year-old German medical doctor and Roman Catholic nun who made Pakistan her second home, where she improved the lot of those afflicted with leprosy by putting up, throughout the years, the eight-story Marie Adelaide Leprosy Center in Karachi and 170 control centers in the rest of the country. She was the Magsaysay awardee for Public Service.

Nepal's Bharat Koirala, 60, was honored for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. A journalist, he brought news media, including newspapers and radio, to the scattered rural villages of his country. "Wall newspapers", or huge billboard-style newspapers on walls in rural towns, are one great example of Koirala's contributions.

Pandey was the awardee for Emergent Leadership. He is one of the founders of Asha (Hope), which supports education for poor children in India by tapping the resources of Indians abroad. A fuller manifestation of Pandey's vision is the Asha Ashram in the village of Lalpur, where young dalits, or untouchables, live and study among traditional artisans and engage in beekeeping, vegetable gardening and cottage industries.

The Magsaysay awardee for Peace and International Understanding was 49-year-old Sukho Choi or Venerable Pomnyun Snim, a Korean Buddhist monk. He is the leader of South Korea's Jung To Society, which advances the cause of reconciliation between the two Koreas. Upon learning in the late 1990s of the plight of starving people in North Korea, where an estimated 3 million people had died, he sought help from government and relief organizations abroad to help feed North Korea's hungry.

Still, news is news, and the Philippines' Today newspaper characterized Pandey as someone who loved "playing to the gallery - even having a media aide from India in tow to chronicle his every word".

The column further said, "The $50,000 cash prize that the US-educated Pandey received with his Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership actually came from the Washington, DC-based Ford Foundation that wraps itself unabashedly in the Stars and Stripes.

"So if Pandey really is the principled man that he wants us to believe he is, then we hope that before he caught his flight back to New Delhi (or was it New York?) he dropped by the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard and left his dollar-denominated check there in protest.

"After all, it would be inconceivable for his hands to be tainted with what seems like blood money coming from, by his reckoning, 'the biggest terrorist in the world'. Right, Mr Pandey?"

It was this unsigned column that prompted Pandey to return the prize money. Many would have preferred that he kept the money, the obvious reason voiced by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation's official statement:

"We respect Mr Pandey's decision. In all the 45 years of the Magsaysay Award, the Foundation has consistently respected the personal convictions and advocacies of the awardees. Since the financial component of the Magsaysay Award could be used to support Asha's educational programs for the poor and low-caste children in India, we regret that this will no longer be possible."

The Pandey flap, however, failed to overshadow the significance of the awards. Heintz stated one such importance: "This award has global significance, and it's a wonderful way of showing the world what is happening in Asia and the quality of leadership that does exist here."

Pfau had a similar insight, which the nun called a "revelation": "In this award, Asia speaks, and Asia speaks different than the Nobel Prize, which has been more or less invented by the West."

On a more practical level, the recipients see the award as something to aid or further their causes. Koirala said, "Other people, including my government, which have not really recognized the value of working to develop community media in the country, will now do that. Because once the award was announced, what happened was the government started congratulating me. So now that they have done that, they should be able to see what we are doing and be able to help us in what we are doing."

Pandey echoed the same sentiments: "The issues that we have been talking about will, I hope, get some importance and people will take us seriously, and hopefully, we will be able to move forward in the direction of achieving our objectives."

Venerable Pomnyun Snim perhaps articulated the most important thing about the Magsaysay awards: "I think the importance lies upon problem resolution, not relying on politics, or any other ideology, concepts or political causes; cultivating reconciliation and cooperation from the bottom up."

This, in a way, was summed up most clearly and succinctly by Heintz, who said the awards "demonstrate what individuals can do, and what individual leadership, sacrifice, intelligence and courage can do for society, for humanity".

A fact evidently not lost on a young boy and girl who approached Snim, clutching pen and paper, and asked the monk for his autograph.

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Sep 13, 2002

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