MANILA—Howard Dee, who has spent his life "championing peace, justice and economic growth," is one of 6 recipients of this year's Magsaysay Award, regarded as Asia's counterpart to the Nobel Peace Prize, it was announced Thursday.
Besides Dee, Youk Chhang of Cambodia, as well as 4 others from East Timor, India and Vietnam, will receive the award for "transforming Asia for the better," the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said.
According to the foundation website, its board of trustees recognizes Dee's quietly heroic half-century of service to the Filipino people, “his abiding dedication to the pursuit of social justice and peace in achieving dignity and progress for the poor, and his being, by his deeds, a true servant of his faith and an exemplary citizen of his nation.”
Dee has also been involved in various peace initiatives, such as the National Peace Conference, Social Reform Council, and peace talks with the Communist Party in the 1990s, and the Bangsamoro Basic Law Peace Council in 2015, according to the website.
Chhang has spent his life chronicling the horrific, genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime in the late 1970s
The other awardees include Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz for her work to uplift the poor and promote social justice and peace in East Timor, and Vo Thi Hoang Yen of Vietnam for providing opportunities for people with disabilities like herself.
Two Indian awardees are Bharat Vatwani, recognized for his work in dealing with mental health, and Sonam Wangchuk, honored for "his uniquely systematic, collaborative and community driven reform of learning systems in remote northern India."
According to the Magsaysay foundation, Chhang began investigating and documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities when contracted by Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Project in 1995.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia, which Chhang heads, gathered over one million documents, many used as evidence in the war crime trials of top Khmer Rouge leaders.
"They digitized these documents for online public access; produced digital mapping of over 23,000 mass graves in Cambodia's 'killing fields'; excavated samples of human skeletal remains for forensic examination; conducted interviews with over 10,000 persons, both victims and perpetrators; implemented research, publishing, and educational programs on genocide, transitional justice and human rights."
Speaking to reporters via Skype from Cambodia after the announcement ceremony, Chhang, 57, said, "It's very significant to understand that the past does have a role in our present, and also in defining our future. If you don't understand your past, and you don't know where you're coming from, then, I think, there are things that will be repeated."
Vo, 52, said she "never expected to receive such an honor, before going on to describe a recent gathering of people with disabilities in a remote area of Vietnam.
"For many of them, it was their first time to join a group. They just hid themselves at home. They never went out," Vo said.
"So (at the gathering) they cried at first. And they expressed that they love that kind of activity, that opportunity to go out more often. It may be just a small thing, but it's a big change for people with disabilities in that remote area."
Magsaysay foundation president Carmencita Abella said focusing attention on the lives and work of such heroic individuals is "especially needed and wanting in a world of growing despair and moral confusion."
"Despite the darkness and gloom in an increasingly fractured and suffering world, we assert our belief that good is happening in the positive, constructive power of greatness of spirit, and its expression in moral leadership that upholds the common good. There is still much reason to hope, we believe," she said.
All six awardees are expected to attend the formal presentation on August 31 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
This year's recipients bring the total number of Magsaysay laureates to 330. — With a report from Kyodo News