Filipino dance historian among 5 Magsaysay Award recipients

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Filipino choreographer and dance historian Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa received a Ramon Magsaysay Award on Monday (August 31) for her lifework of documenting and teaching the pangalay, a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Tausug peoples of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Four other Asians also got the award — which is given yearly to individuals or organizations who have rendered selfless service in the tradition of Ramon Magsaysay, the third Philippine president, after whom the award honor was named.

Established in 1957, the award is Asia's highest honor, widely regarded as the region's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The other recipients this year are:

Kommaly Chanthavong of Laos, for reviving and developing the ancient Laotian art of silk weaving in an effort to provide a source of livelihood for her poor countrymen

Anshu Gupta of India, for founding Goonj, a volunteer group that recycles used clothing and other items, not only giving people jobs but also providing cheaper basic items for those in need

Sanjiv Chaturvedi of India, for his work as government official investigating and exposing cases of corruption

Kyaw Thu of Myanmar, for founding the Free Funeral Services Society in Yangon which relieved his poor countrymen from the emotional and financial stress of burying their dead

Aptly, President Benigno Aquino III, whose mother, the late President Corazon Aquino was also a recipient of the honor, handed out the awards on National Heroes' Day, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Following is a transcript of the speech he delivered:

This is an extraordinary occasion. Exactly fifty-seven years ago, on August 31, 1958, the first Ramon Magsaysay Awards were given to five individuals. As we celebrate a long tradition of recognizing selfless service to the peoples of Asia here in these ceremonies, so too do we celebrate, fittingly, National Heroes’ Day here in the Philippines.

Year in and year out, the Filipino people pay tribute to the bravery of those who worked towards a better Philippines. The faces on the banners around the country, the names most praised today often come from the pages of our history books: people like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and Marcelo del Pilar, hailed, and rightfully so, as heroes.

Yet, the law that mandates the commemoration of National Heroes Day names no single person. Nowhere does it say that blood must be shed for one to be considered a hero. What matters most is the attention and care we give to the ignored and the oppressed; the courage to stand for what is right; and the constant, quiet determination to do our part in uplifting our fellowmen.

These, I believe, are the same principles that informed the leadership of Ramon Magsaysay, a true statesman and a renowned steward of the people’s trust, held in esteem not only in our country, but also in the rest of the world. Should we examine the Magsaysay credo, we will find no allusion to news-making deeds. Instead, we see the promise of service, especially to the common man, and a moral code and style of governance founded on the very same.

Should we examine the life of President Magsaysay, we will see all this, fueled by a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a resolve to bring change to the majority, as soon as possible – even if it means standing alone, against the greatest odds. As the saying goes: Heroes are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times.

This brings to mind a play that I studied in English class, quite a few years ago: Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” The play is set in a town well-known for its baths, which attract many visitors and contribute a great deal to the local economy. In this fictional society, tourism serves as the lifeblood of the people. Dr. Stockmann, the medical officer at the Municipal Baths, has discovered that the water used is contaminated – and he is determined to make this information public.

Throughout the course of the play, Dr. Stockmann faces intense opposition. He is called selfish; he is told that he should he reveal not this information, for he will be culpable, if he did so, for the ruin of the town. In spite of all this, Dr. Stockmann stands by what he has discovered—he speaks the truth, even if he is, at the end of the play, branded an enemy of the people.

In a very tangible way, each of us has been in Dr. Stockmann’s shoes – or that of Jose Rizal, or even of President Magsaysay. We are Dr. Stockmann when we face a fork in the road, whenever we confront the question, “Shall we choose the hard right, or the easy wrong,” and find in ourselves the strength to do that which is right.

Our awardees here are the perfect examples of that. Each of them has transcended the “individual” perspective. Each of them has chosen to leave their comfort zones, and answer the call to serve more and more people, whether the immediate community, or all of society.

To our awardees: You have all faced formidable opponents, from corrupt employees and officials in government, to the phenomenon of widespread poverty and inequality, and even to the way that time erodes our most valuable traditions. But you were not daunted; you have persevered, and continued to persevere, in order to protect justice, basic human rights, and our cultural heritage.

There is Anshu Gupta, who has proven that the key to combating extreme poverty and vulnerability in his home country, India, lies in the simplest of things: cloth. Realizing its intrinsic value for survival and human dignity, Mr. Gupta left a lucrative job and founded Goonj, an organization focused on empowering those at the margins through the redistribution and processing of cloth to fit all kinds of needs.

Working in 21 of India’s states, Goonj has now helped a vast number of Indians to take stock of their own lives through the various initiatives under its Cloth for Work program.

From the utilitarian, but no less meaningful, use of cloth, we move to the example of one who has preserved its beauty, and used it to help others weave stronger, brighter futures: Kommaly Chanthavong from Laos. She turned her love for silk-weaving into the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, covering 35 villages – and did not stop there.

Today, the Lao Sericulture Company manages Ms. Chanthavong’s many initiatives: from the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, to Camacrafts, which markets handicrafts, and even to Mulberries, which initiates livelihood projects from traditional arts and crafts. All these provided thousands of Laotians with dignified livelihoods, while preserving and honoring ancient cultural traditions.

Indeed: Our country holds the belief that if you forget your roots, you are bound not to reach your destination. Our own kababayan, Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, has lived by this code. She turned her appreciation of the arts into an advocacy, with the most important one being the study, practice, and teaching of the dance style, pangalay, from the southernmost part of our country.

Mrs. Fernando-Amilbangsa refused to let this tradition be forgotten, believing that it is not only a unique manifestation of our people’s culture, but that it also links us to our brothers and sisters in Southeast Asia. In the face of indifference or perhaps even scorn, she persevered and even modernized the dance – ensuring that the tradition of pangalay becomes a living embodiment of Filipino progress.

From Myanmar, we have Kyaw Thu, an esteemed actor, who has chosen to make his mark beyond the silver screen, and work with the marginalized. In 2001, as we have heard, he founded a society to help the poor bury their dead in accordance with the proper Buddhist burial rites.

Since then, their work has expanded to cover almost every aspect of life, including medical assistance, vocational training, and humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict and calamities. Mr. Thu has never just been a figurehead. He has helped to carry coffins during funeral services; he has lent material support to those protesting restrictive government policies; he himself has spoken out on social issues, even in the face of harassment.

There is also Sanjiv Chaturvedi, who has dedicated his life to fighting corruption in government. The idealism that paved the way for his entry into public service has spurred his investigations of corruption and determination to uphold integrity, even in the face of threats, humiliation, and harassment.

Let us emphasize: Mr. Chaturvedi does not only strive to uncover wrongdoing, he also works to institute policies that ensure the transparency and accountability of systems and to implement meaningful projects. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges before him, he continues to work towards lasting reform.

Such a situation, as you may well know, is very familiar to those working in this administration, who have spent the past few years struggling to uproot corruption and impunity, and institute good governance in its place.

None of our awardees embarked on these journeys out of a desire for fame and fortune; none of you chose to take on these responsibilities because you thought that they were simple or easy. Real transformation requires real, backbreaking effort – and this is what you gave, willingly.

In many ways, you are like the heroes that many of my countrymen remember on this day: those who struggled and endured hardship for a greater cause. It is only right that we are paying tribute to all of you on this occasion. You are the modern-day heroes that not only Filipinos, but all men and women all over the world need.

This is the last time that I will be invited to the Ramon Magsaysay Awards to preside over it; I must say: It has been a distinct privilege and an honor. Each time I have seen the roster of awardees, I am reminded of what my mother President Corazon Aquino, a former Ramon Magsaysay Awardee herself, often said, quoting my father: “It only takes a few dedicated and courageous individuals to infect many, many people with the germ of courage.”

Today, let me add the qualities of compassion, integrity, and determination to that. You are the individuals that my mother spoke of; and it is my deepest hope that you will continue your work—that you will continue to inspire us who wish you nothing but the greatest success, because we know that you share this success with tens of thousands, if not, millions of others.

Thank you, and good day.

CNN Philippines' Kimberly Go contributed to this report.