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Anatomy of a Prize

International Understanding: Jockin Arputham
Media and the Arts:
Atmakusumah Astraatmadja
Public Service: Liang Congjie
Government Service:
Jesse M. Robredo
Community Leadership:Aruna Roy

Could this be an Asian sign of the times? The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, received some 30% more nominations this year than in 1999. The number of nominees for public service (there are five categories) soared, especially in the areas of human rights, the environment and the empowerment of women. But fewer names were submitted for achievements in government service compared with 1999, when the harvest was already lean. "Some of the nominees in public service are ex-government people," says Carmencita Abella, president of the Manila-based award-giving foundation. "Either they retired early or they got frustrated with their failure to bring about change within the system."

Aruna Roy, the recipient this year of a Magsaysay Award for community leadership, is one of the frustrated. She resigned from the Indian civil service to fight village-level corruption. Two other winners were tested by initial government hostility. Jockin Arputham, honored for international understanding, once battled state-ordered slum evictions in India. Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, winner for journalism, literature and creative communication arts, was a silenced voice for two decades under President Suharto's rule. But the Philippines' Jesse M. Robredo worked within the system, winning this year's Magsaysay for government service for his 10-year tenure as mayor of Naga City. And China's Liang Congjie, awardee for public service, carefully chooses his environmental causes to stay in the good graces of communist officials.

The irony is that the Magsaysay Awards were created in 1958 to honor a government official. Ramon Magsaysay was president of the Philippines from 1953 until he died in a plane crash in 1957. A former defense secretary who broke the back of the peasant-based communist "Huk" movement, Magsaysay won hearts and minds by focusing his energies on helping the poor. His accomplishments inspired two American philanthropists, John D. Rockefeller III and his brother Nelson, to establish an award "to be given annually to one or more persons in Asia whose demonstrated leadership is motivated by a concern for the welfare of people comparable to that which characterized the life of Ramon Magsaysay." Every year, five honorees receive $50,000 each.

There was a time when government service provided a rich vein of "greatness of spirit" — the first and foremost virtue the Magsaysay board looks for in a nominee. These days, the state seems to function more as a negative force that sparks greatness among private citizens and organizations outraged by venality or indifference in public service. Consider India's Roy. "I found that the bureaucracy is still controlled by a decadent colonial spirit that is deeply suspicious of people," says the former civil servant. "I felt powerless there. How can you operate in a system where your code of ethics is unacceptable?"

We may yet hear similar plaints in the coming years as the foundation focuses on currently under-represented countries like Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. "These are socialist countries that are now opening up, so it is easier to identify nominees and get people to make nominations," says Abella. Liang, the environmentalist, is only the third awardee from China, the world's most populous nation. Democratic India, the second biggest country in population, has been honored 37 times.

But don't expect the Magsaysay foundation to make a political statement by honoring anti-government firebrands. Says Abella: "Our consideration is, 'Will giving this award at this time advance the cause of the person?'" The foundation will not confirm it, but sources say a leading Indonesian cleric nearly won in 1997. In the end, however, the nine-member all-Philippine Magsaysay board decided the honor could do more harm than good, given the enmity and what at that time looked like the unassailable position of now resigned president Suharto.

Call it the Asian Way: cooperation rather than confrontation, pragmatic idealism rather than the grand defiant gesture. So you have squatters-rights advocate Arputham abandoning in-your-face tactics to evolve a partnership with government, an approach he has brought to other countries. You have Astraatmadja joining hands with Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, to draft a law removing state supervision of the press. Even Roy, who was so disillusioned with government service, is not averse to re-engagement. The grassroots organization she founded, known by its initials MKSS, recently fielded two candidates in local elections. Both won landslide victories. "We look for sustainable results, not flash-in-the-pan causes," says Abella. Read all about the Asian Way — and the winners of Asia's premier prize — in the following pages.

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COVER: Anatomy of a Prize
From an environmentalist in China to a mayor in the Philippines, Asiaweek presents the five extraordinary winners of the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Awards
Public Service: Liang Congjie, China
Community Leadership: Aruna Roy, India
Media and the Arts: Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, Indonesia
International Understanding: Jockin Arputham, India
Government Service: Jesse M. Robredo, Philippines

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