MANILA, Philippines — Six people were honored Friday as this year’s winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, known as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize, including a Cambodian genocide survivor who helped document the Khmer Rouge atrocities and an Indian psychiatrist who led the rescue of thousands of mentally ill street paupers.
The others who received the prize at a ceremony in Manila were a Filipino who led peace talks with communist insurgents, a polio-stricken Vietnamese who fought discrimination against the disabled, an East Timorese who built care centers for the poor amid civil strife and an Indian who tutored village students to help them pass exams.
The awards, which were announced last month, are named after a Philippine president who died in a 1957 plane crash. “All this effort that I have been trying for so many decades is not in vain, it’s been recognized,” said Youk Chhang, who lost his father, five of his siblings and nearly 60 of his relatives during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent civil war in the 1970s. He escaped as a refugee to the United States before returning home to head a center that documented the horrific violence in aid of Cambodian war crimes trials.
Youk Chhang said in an interview earlier this week that his recognition is also “a message to other institutions, to other countries around the world that learning from the past mistakes is significant, is important even though Cambodia has a long way to go.”
The massive scope of his group’s work included collecting more than a million documents, producing digital maps of more than 23,000 mass graves and excavating remains for forensic examination. Youk Chhang, 57, is currently involved in a project to develop a museum, archives and library and a graduate program on crimes against humanity.
In India, where an estimated 400,000 homeless people struggle with mental illness, psychiatrist Bharat Vatwani started a mission in 1988 that by now has rescued, treated and reintegrated into their families more than 7,000 of them.
Vatwani’s “healing compassion” affirmed “the human dignity of even the most ostracized in our midst,” the award foundation said. “Nobody understands in India, or nobody understands in Asia, what exactly is the issue … about mental illnesses,” Vatwani said. “That drew us to the cause and that has kept us moving forward and forward.”
Among the other recipients are Filipino businessman Howard Dee, who served as a government negotiator in peace talks with communist rebels in the 1990s, and Vietnamese Vo Thi Hoang Yen, who contracted polio when she was 2 years old and helped found a nonprofit group in 2005 that has helped about 15,000 people with disabilities get jobs. Her showcase project involved a motorcycle taxi service designed for the disabled.
Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz from East Timor was recognized for leading efforts to help the poor get access to health care, education, farming and livelihood in the midst of East Timor’s tumultuous transition to independence in 2001.
Sonam Wangchuk, from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, was lauded for fighting discrimination against minorities and founding a movement in 1988 that pursued educational reforms and helped tutor poor village students so they could pass exams.