Cambodian, Japanese among winners of Magsaysay Awards

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A psychiatrist who helped fellow Cambodians recover from trauma resulting from the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule and a Japanese ophthalmologist who led an effort to treat thousands of Vietnamese villagers were among those selected for this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awards, regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.

The other winners were a Filipina pediatrician who has provided medical, legal and social help to thousands of abused children and their families, and a Frenchman who battles plastic pollution in Indonesian rivers.

The annual awards, announced Wednesday, are named after a Philippine president who died in a 1957 plane crash, and honor “greatness of spirit in selfless service to the peoples of Asia.” They are to be presented in Manila on Nov. 30.

The winners “have all challenged the invisible societal lines that cause separation and have drawn innovative and inspiring ones that build connections,” said Aurelio Montinola III, chairperson of the award foundation.

Cambodian Sotheara Chhim, 54, has led the treatment of thousands of traumatized survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule and other patients in his country since becoming executive director of its Transcultural Psychosocial Organization in 2002, the foundation said.

As a child, he was forced to work in Khmer Rouge camps for more than three years until their rule ended in 1979. He became one of Cambodia’s first psychiatrists after years of war and devoted his life to treating people, especially in rural communities, where he said “the mental health worker should be.”

Japanese ophthalmologist Tadashi Hattori, 58, was awarded the prize for training local doctors who have treated thousands of Vietnamese. He decided to become a doctor at age 15 when he witnessed the rude treatment that his cancer-stricken father received in a hospital, the award foundation said.

In a 2002 visit to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi, he was deeply moved when he saw how villagers had become blind because of an acute lack of eye specialists and treatment facilities, and started raising funds, training experts and donating equipment to local hospitals, it said.

“Even just healing one eye may make it possible for someone to attend a school or go back to work,” Hattori said. “I can’t turn my back on people who are on the verge of losing their sight just because they lack the money to pay for treatment.”

In the Philippines, where child abuse has been a longstanding problem because of poverty, child labor and trafficking, pediatrician Bernadette Madrid, 64, drew attention by providing treatment, raising awareness and engaging policymakers and civic groups to address the issue, award officials said.

Since 1997, she has led the country’s first child protection center at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila. It has served more than 27,000 children as of last year.

Madrid won the award for “her leadership in running a multisectoral, multidisciplinary effort in child protection that is admired in Asia, and her competence and compassion in devoting herself to seeing that every abused child lives in a healing, safe and nurturing society,” the award foundation said.

It said Gary Bencheghib from France became a “warrior” against plastic pollution on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where his parents relocated years ago, when he discovered the extent of plastic clogging its waterways. At 14, he started a weekly beach cleanup with his sister, brother and friends in a project that led him to environmental protection advocacy.

Bencheghib, 27, later took up filmmaking in New York and produced more than a hundred videos on plastic pollution and environmental protection that millions have watched on YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms. A 2017 documentary on the polluted Citarum River in West Java helped prompt President Joko Widodo’s administration to begin a seven-year rehabilitation program, award officials said.

He and his siblings have led the deployment of about 170 trash barriers in polluted rivers and plan to install hundreds more in Bali and Java.

He won the award for “his inspiring fight against marine plastic pollution … his youthful energies in combining nature, adventure, video and technology as weapons for social advocacy and his creative, risk-taking passion that is truly a shining example for the youth and the world,” the award foundation said.