Magsaysay Prize: Six 'Nobel Asians' against poverty and for human rights

Manila (AsiaNews/Ucan) – Six Asians have been singled out for the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, instituted by the same Foundation and known as the "Asian Nobel Prize". The six citizens are outstanding for their social work, their fight against poverty and against models of faulty development and for the promotion of human rights.

The prizes, awarded on 31 August, went to Indonesian Teten Masduki, to Matiur Rahman, a journalist from Bangladesh, to Indian doctor V. Shanta, to the Laotian Sombath Somphone, to Thai senator Jon Ungphakorn, and to the South Korean Yoon Hye-ran.

Masduki set up and runs "Indonesia corruption watch", an organisation which monitors cases of corruption and nepotism in government circles. Accepting the prize, Masduki said he cannot remain silent while the population "suffers because of abuses of power". He dedicated the award to "Indonesian people to be courageous in fighting against abuses of power".

The prize for journalism went to Rahman for a journalistic campaign against acid-throwing which claims many victims: "around 300 people each year lose their natural-born faces in such attacks".

Rahman conducted his crusade through "Prothom Alo" (first light), the newspaper he founded, which by 1998 was the most widely read daily newspaper in Bangladesh, with a circulation of two million. The journalist announced he would donate equal shares of the 50,000 US dollar prize from the Magsaysay foundation to the Prothom Alo Aid Fund for acid-throwing victims, and to his campaigns for journalists who are victimized by political persecution, against trafficking in illegal drugs and to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh.

The Indian doctor Shanta was also awarded. She is head of the Cancer Institute in Chennai, which offers 60 percent of its clients free or subsidized services. The institute has been defined as a "a center of excellence in treatment of cancer." At the award ceremony, the 78-year-old doctor said: "We have never regarded ourselves as individuals, only as members of a mission of service, transcending geography, race and religion. Honours, successes and failures concern us only to the extent that they are likely to affect our mission."

The Laotian Sombath, 54 years, founded and runs a rice-based integrated farming project. The centre is the only organization of its kind in the country; it is officially recognized and it employs hundreds of workers who work in friendly environmental conditions. Accepting the award, Sombath criticized economic development models adopted by Asian countries, upholding rather local, traditional methods. He said: "Laos has a vibrant and young population who are still relatively unspoiled by mindless consumerism and commercialization." According to Sombath, Laos should not betray its "precious heritage by adopting development models which emphasize economic growth, but jeopardize social and environmental sustainability".

Meanwhile, Jon was awarded for his efforts to improve the conditions of Muslims in southern Thailand. The 58-year-old senator dedicated the prize to

Somchai Nilapaijit and to his family. Somchai, head of the Thai Muslim Lawyers Association, was kidnapped in Bangkok on 12 March 2004 while, according to Jon, he was pushing a Senate committee to investigate whether three Muslims had been tortured by the police to get false confessions. "The present constitution of my country guarantees the civil rights and democratic freedoms of individuals and communities on a par with the most democratic countries of the world, yet Thailand has seen some of the worst human rights and civil rights abuses in recent history," Jon said.

The youngest person to receive an award was 34-year-old Yoon, founder of Citizens Opening the World for Welfare, a foundation which promotes social welfare in Cheonan, South Korea. Yoon's mission is geared towards vulnerable youth – her original clients were from the Young Men's Christian Association – as well as disabled, poor and mentally challenged people. Referring to her growing up from an "inexperienced young woman" to the "leader of a younger generation", she said:  "I rejoice in how people have changed through this work, but the one thing that has really changed is myself."

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