Last month, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards were all set to recognise seven individuals who had made possible profound changes through their endeavours and creations in Asia. But when two of the three Chinese awardees suddenly cancelled their trips to Manila, the word “boycott” hung in the air. To Filipinos, it was yet another fallout from the botched rescue attempt of tourists held hostage by a dismissed police officer that left eight Hong Kong nationals dead. It was China striking back. It would have been a shame if it were true, because the August 23 tragedy was all about death, but this year's RM Awards were all about life and how to change it for the better.
The awards are about how the world's most devastating manmade event could give birth to a relentless drive for peace through nuclear disarmament. Tadatoshi Akiba is the mayor of one of the only two cities to suffer the horror of an atomic explosion. He has spent his life making sure that such a thing would never happen again, and recruited other mayors, public officials and ordinary people alike to make it so. From the smallest hamlets to the most modern cities, Akiba called his brethren to disarm. From him, we can learn about the power of peace.
The awards are about being unable to discover the world as it should be because of limits, physical and otherwise. Bangladesh is a country with so many needs, but for A.H.M. Noman Khan, those needs included making sure that disabled Bangladeshis have the same opportunities as the able-bodied to live long, fruitful lives unfettered by discrimination and limitations. From him, we learn about the virtue of breaking barriers.
The awards are about going to where you are most needed, with a mind open to the new and unexplored. That is how teachers Christopher Bernido and Ma. Victoria Carpio-Bernido went from the United States to Bohol to revive a school and then employ a new paradigm for teaching physics. From them, we learn about the force of learning.
The awards are about believing you can save what seems impossible to save. The only one among the three Chinese winners to come and receive the award personally, Huo Daishan remembered from his youth a bountiful, vibrant river called the Huai and was horrified to see the fetid zombie of a river it was now. All the villages lining the thousand-kilometre river were nests for illness. Leaving behind his job, using his skills as a photojournalist and calling on others, Huo took his campaign all over China, talked to whomever he had to talk to, turning opponents into colleagues. From him, we learn the value of relentlessness for causes that matter.
Bangladesh’s A H M Noman Khan receiving the Magsaysay Award.
Yet there would be much to learn from the two other Chinese awardees who did not make it to Manila for the RM Awards rites. Looking at China's environmental problems, one sees Pan Yue orchestrating efforts at the highest levels to spur environment-friendly action, even a national environmental program that holds all accountable. Pan wants people to take responsibility, and wants the Chinese government to be the first to do so. Zoom in, and you have Fu Qiping's toiling to transform the poor, ravaged village of Tengtuo into a modern, thriving village, what has been dubbed 'a miracle village'. From them, we learn that nothing is too big or too small when it comes to making a difference.
When the August 31 ceremonies came, Pan Yue and Fu Qiping sent representatives to receive the award in their stead, and Hu Daishan was in Manila in person even as Beijing's envoy assured us that there was no payback, calling the hostage taking “an isolated incident”. What followed from Filipinos was not so much a sigh of relief but a palpable resolution to move on from the tragedy that was August 23. After a week of feeling like the hostage-taking would haunt us forever, the RM Awards were a hopeful evening that was all about what comes next.
Celebrating the life-changing efforts of Asia's best is, in a way, a profound remembrance of those lives lost. We aren't ignoring or belittling the loss of life; we have marked their death and now go on to try and improve Asia from here on. Perhaps there was no better affirmation of the RM Awards' embrace of the best that Asia represents than President Noynoy Aquino's calling the awardees “symbols of the highest ideals of humankind, and for shining your light on a world that, surely, is in constant need for examples.” The Ramon Magsaysay Awards reminds us all about the gift of service, with seven bright lights shining through the dried bloodstains of a tragic Monday.
This article was first published in Philippine Daily Inquirer. Asian News Network; all rights reserved.
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