Lives of uncanny resonance
These are troubled times. The planet is roiled by conflict and violence marked by alarming levels of bigotry, racism, hate crimes, and fake news, and by leaders who employ a populist stance in taking their constituencies down the slippery slope of authoritarianism.
More than ever, it behooves anyone wanting to leave a livable, indeed better,
planet to the next generations to be aware of and guard against the evil of indifference, to acknowledge, as Nadine Gordimer did, that “a truly living human being cannot remain neutral,” and, consequently, to fight injustice.
It thus becomes a source of comfort that the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF), Asia’s pioneering award-giving body which has given out the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the region for more than 60 years, has once again recognized the life work of certain men and women and their great significance in our times. These are men and women who, according to RMAF notes, were confronted with conflict and violence and responded with uncommon courage, vision and perseverance. Their life stories pulse with uncanny resonance, as though plucked from the Philippine experience.
Like the journalists Ko Swe Win of Myanmar and Ravish Kumar of India, of the online news service Myanmar Now and the New Delhi Television Network (NDTV), respectively. Individually persistent, they are both committed to the pursuit of truth and to independent and fact-based truth-telling.
Swe Win was a student when he was arrested along with 67 others for taking part in a demonstration and distributing material against the ruling military junta. He was sentenced to 21 years in jail, tortured and starved, but emerged unbroken from prison after seven years to study journalism and complete a master’s degree on a scholarship.
“Intolerance and hostility toward different races and nationalities being exploited as a political weapon” are growing problems in Myanmar and the world, Swe Win says, adding that “only the promotion of human rights can help us contain this deplorable trend.” Myanmar Now, of which he is editor in chief, produces well-researched investigative reports on crucial human rights and social justice issues.
Kumar started out at NDTV as a field reporter in 1996. Now, as its executive editor, he has his own daily show, “Prime Time,” which presents the real-life problems of ordinary people such as rickshaw-pullers and displaced farmers, as well as underreported issues like badly funded state schools.
Despite harassment and threats from certain partisans, Kumar strives to uphold the integrity of what he calls “the people’s newsroom.” He is firm in the belief that journalism advances democracy by giving voice to the voiceless and widening the space for critical, socially responsible media.
Businessman Kim Jong-ki of South Korea transformed his personal sorrow at losing a son to suicide in 1995 into an organized effort to address bullying and other forms of school violence. It was not until he established his Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence (FPYV) that the wide range and impact of the problem began to be acknowledged. For the next 24 years, FPYV conducted antibullying campaigns; established a hotline that now receives 30-50 calls daily and dispatches teams to respond to urgent
cases; and lobbied for pertinent legislation.
In 2004, a law on the prevention and handling of school violence was enacted. In 2018, a survey showed that the incidence of school violence had dropped from 20 percent to 3 percent since Jong-ki put up FPYV.
Angkhana Neelapaijit of Thailand embarked on her mission to protect and defend human rights after her husband, the prominent human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, was abducted in Bangkok a day after he publicly accused the military of torturing detainees in southern Thailand, and subsequently killed.
The widow turned her full attention from tending to their five young children and a small business to working to bring the policemen involved to trial. They were acquitted anyway, but she continued to seek justice for her husband and others like him.
In 2006, aided by NGOs and her family, she put up the Justice for Peace Foundation, which has documented human rights violations in southern Thailand, provided legal help to victims, and trained women on human rights and the peace process. She was named commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, the only member with grassroots experience in the field. Her term ended last month, but she “push[es] the limits” in a peaceful, legal approach to fighting rights abuses.
This year’s RM laureates include the Philippines’ Ryan Cayabyab, a trailblazer in Filipino music. He brings a touch of exuberance to the honor roll, serves as a constant inspiration, and shows that “music can indeed instill pride and joy, and unify people across the many barriers that divide them.”
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