Last August 31, 2018 was the 60th Anniversary of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards which were first presented in 1958 to six outstanding individuals. Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash in 1957. Again, the ceremony was held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in Pasay City.

As the individual awardees gave each of their responses for the Magsaysay Award that they received, one couldn’t help but be inspired by their lives.

Ramon Magsaysay Awards 2018
Ramon Magsaysay Awards 2018

Preserving Historical Memory for Healing and Justice Youk Chhang had suffered very much during the Khmer Rouge regime. His family had been forced out of their home to work like slaves in a rural commune when he was only 14 years old.

Tortured and detained, he was traumatized by the death of his father, five of his siblings, and nearly sixty of his relatives. Years later, he somehow managed to escape across the Thai border and became a refugee in the United States where he later earned a graduate degree. When civil order had been restored, he returned to Cambodia.

In 1995, he was asked to head the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) at Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Project which was tasked to investigate and document Khmer Rouge atrocities. Youk expanded the thrust of DC-Cam beyond documentation in aid of the Khmer Rouge War Crime Trials that started in 2009, promoting “memory and justice as the critical foundations for the rule of law and genuine national reconciliation”.

Youk Chhang, Cambodia
Youk Chhang, Cambodia

DC-Cam was able to gather over a million documents, half of which were provided as evidence in the said war crime trials and were also made available for online public access. They also produced digital mapping of over 23,00 mass graves in Cambodia’s “killing fields,” excavated sample remains for forensic examination, conducted interviews with 10,000 individuals, victims and perpetrators alike, among many others.

Upon receiving the award, he emphasized how “it is important to remember the mistakes of the past” and that justice “will always begin and end with the duty of memory.”

Building a Caring Society, Brick by Brick

Maria De Lourdes Martins Cruz, popularly known as “Mana Lou”, joined the Canossian Sisters congregation but left it before taking her final vows when she realized that her personal vocation lay outside the convent walls.

Maria De Lourdes Martins Cruz, East Timor
Maria De Lourdes Martins Cruz, East Timor

In 1989, she founded the Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, a lay institute dedicated to uplifting the poorest of the poor through various projects in health care, education, and farming, among others.

She built a refuge in her father’s coffee estate which eventually included a school for girls, orphanages, a home for the sick, and a place for safety and peace for people of opposing faiths and political views. From there, the lay institute expanded to seven such houses across Timor Leste called “schools of life.” These houses function as centers for moral and spiritual formation, training, and care centers.

In partnership with Dr. Daniel Murphy, an American doctor, Mana Lou also established Bairo-Pite Clinic in 1999, a free clinic for the poor serving 300 patients daily and is Timor Leste’s largest provider of tuberculosis treatment. In her story, Mana Lou recalled how during one retreat, she had asked Jesus, “What should I do?” Then she heard a voice say, “…I suffered a lot in a remote area with poor, disadvantaged, illiterate, and suffering people. They don’t have any support. I really need your help!”

Howard Dee, the Awardee

Championing the human face of peace, justice, and economic growth, Howard Dee from the Philippines, also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Howard Dee, Philippines
Howard Dee, Philippines

After completing his studies, he got a job in a pioneering local pharmaceuticals company, and work his way up the ladder to become its shareholder and president.

In 1970, he helped establish a group of business corporations where member-companies committed themselves to donate 2% of their profits to social development. Five years later, he co-founded the Assisi Development Foundation
(ADF) with Jesuit priest Francisco Araneta that seeks to “pursue peace through development with justice.”

In over four decades of work, ADF was able to implement more than 4,000 projects serving 10.5 million Filipinos. Working with the Catholic Church, ADF launched an integrated nutrition program popularly known as “Hapag-Asa” which catered to 1.8 million children.

He initiated “Tabang Mindanao” (Help Mindanao), the collaborative response of a multisectoral task force to life-threatening emergencies in Mindanao from 1998-2002 that provided 2 million families with basic needs, farm support, water systems, and health and education assistance.

ADF also took up the cause of indigenous peoples’ rights through its various programs such as the Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People’s Education in Mindanao. Government and civic leaders have asked him to lead peace-building and reform initiatives, covering five Philippine administrations.

Truly, “an exemplary citizen of his nation.”

Erasing Stigma for Mentally-ill

Bharat Vatwani from India has been recognized for his tremendous courage and healing compassion in embracing India’s mentally-afflicted destitute, and his steadfast and magnanimous dedication to the work of restoring and affirming the human dignity of even the most ostracized people in Indian society.

Bharat Vatwani, India;
Bharat Vatwani, India

In few countries is the contrast between great wealth and extreme poverty as stark as in India. One time, Vatwani was out dining in a restaurant with his wife Smitha, also a psychiatrist, when they were appalled at the sight of a thin, unkempt man drinking water from a street canal.

Taking time to talk to the man, a mentally-afflicted college graduate, they decided to bring him to their clinic to be washed and treated. After their encounter with the man who drank water from a canal, Dr. Vatwani and his wife started an informal operation of bringing mentally-ill street people to their private clinic for treatment.

This eventually led to the establishment of Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation in 1988, which aims at rescuing mentally-ill persons living on the streets; providing free shelter, food, and psychiatric treatment; and reuniting them with their families.

Starting with a two-room tenement that could take in only three people at a time, Shraddha drew public attention when they rescued and treated a street person who turned out to be a respected lecturer at a Mumbai art school, someone who had previously and mysteriously disappeared.

Learning about what the Vatwanis had done, the school’s faculty and students organized a major art exhibition that drew 141 participating artists in India and abroad, and successfully raised US$22,357.

With this seed money, the Vatwanis bought a piece of property in Mumbai for a 20-bed facility that they opened in 1997; the unexpected donation inspired them to further expand their work with the help of private donors, volunteer professionals, and social workers.

In 2006, they moved to a bigger 120-patient facility in Karjat outside Mumbai, which had five buildings on a 6.5-acre land. In a one-of-a-kind mission that began in 1988, Vatwani and the foundation have by now rescued, treated, and reintegrated into their families and communities more than 7,000 of India’s mentally-ill roadside destitute, with a remarkable reunion rate with their families of 95%.


Vo Thing Hoang Yen from Vietnam, possessing a dauntless spirit and prodigious energy in rising above her condition; showing creative, charismatic leadership in the sustained campaign to break down physical and mental barriers that have marginalized PWDs in Vietnam; became a shining, inspirational model for the youth in her country and elsewhere in the world.

Vo Thi Hoang Yen, Vietnam
Vo Thi Hoang Yen, Vietnam

She contracted polio when she was two-and-a-half years old. In many other cases, particularly in rural areas, this condition would have consigned her to a life of dependence. However, with a supportive family and her own courage and will, she succeeded in getting an education.

Braving discrimination and the constraints of her disability, she earned college degrees at Ho Chi Minh University, and later a scholarship brought her to the University of Kansas, where she obtained a master’s degree in Human Development in 2004.

In 2005, with three other PWDs, she founded Disability Research and Capacity Development (DRD), a non-profit organization based in Ho Chi Minh City whose guiding vision is to create “an equal and non-discriminatory society” for PWDs.

Over the past thirteen years, DRD has directly assisted some 15,000 PWDs with skills and capacity-building activities, scholarships, job placements, donations of assistive devices and computers, and, employing social media, a website on laws for the disabled and a digital map showing PWD-accessible public infrastructure.

Declaring Peace with Nature

Last but not the least is Sonam Wangchuk from India. In 1988, after earning his engineering degree, Wangchuk founded Students’ Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) and started coaching Ladakhi students, 95% of whom used to fail government exams.

Sonnam Wangchuk, India
Sonnam Wangchuk, India

In 1994, with Wangchuk in the lead, “Operation New Hope” (ONH) was launched to expand and consolidate the partnership-driven educational reform program. At present, it has trained 700 teachers, 1,000 VEC leaders, and dramatically increased the success rate of students in matriculation exams from just 5% in 1996 to 75% by 2015.

Seeing how climate change has affected the natural water supply for agriculture, he seized on the idea of building artificial glaciers in the form of “ice stupas” (conically-shaped ice mountains that store water in winter and in summer melts) to supply farm irrigation water. With six stupas, he and his team have stored roughly 30 million liters of water. In the award ceremonies he said, “The world spends 1.7 trillion dollars a year on defense.

Defense in the future will not be India arming itself against China, nor China against the US. All countries will have to pool their resources to defend themselves from new environmental challenges and climate change.

In just one year, India and China together lose roughly five million lives to air pollution alone–lives lost without a single bullet fired by conventional enemies across borders…And once again in declaring peace with nature we will have to re-design our education system to heal the planet and its people. I appeal to the leaders of the world to recognize this war and re-examine the meaning of defense in the 21st century.”

A Rich Asian Legacy of Humanity

Towards the end of the award ceremonies, the guest of honor, Vice President Leni Robredo gave a speech which centered on the theme of Defiant Hope. She said, “…it is critical that we all remain hopeful.

But when I say this, I speak of hope that is actively determined to change the future, the way President Magsaysay showed us
in the way he lived. I speak of hope that is not passive but grounded in a culture of discipline, excellence, and service. I speak of hope that is defiant, not just waiting for things
to get better.” She reiterated how the Asia we know carries a rich legacy of humanity and leadership. In congratulating the awardees, the Vice President of the Philippines tagged them as “the ultimate proof that quiet bravery is the most potent kind of strength, and that empathy belies a deeper kind of power, not weakness.”

The Ramon Magsaysay Award was established to recognize individuals and organizations for their selfless service to the peoples of Asia. Since it began, 330 recipients of this prestigious award have been recognized, including the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Mohammed Yunus, who were later on awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jose Aranas and Giancarlo “Gio” Francisco

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