|'Asia's Nobels' unfazed by
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
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."
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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".
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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