Japanese, Sri Lankan among 2017 winners of Magsaysay awards

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Japanese historian who helped Cambodians preserve the Angkor temples and a Sri Lankan teacher who counseled war widows and orphans to overcome their nightmares are among the six winners of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Awards, regarded as Asia's version of the Nobel Prize.

The other recipients named Thursday are an Indonesian working for the return of large tracts of forest land to indigenous communities, a Singaporean who leads the cooking of 6,000 meals a day for the destitute, a Philippine theater group which stood up to a dictatorship and a Filipino who oversaw the opening of job-generating export processing zones.

The awards, named after a Philippine president who died in a 1957 plane crash, are to be presented in Manila on Aug. 31.

The winners were unafraid to take on large causes and "refused to give up, despite meager resources, daunting adversity and strong opposition," said Carmencita Abella, president of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. "Their approaches are all deeply anchored on a respect for human dignity and a faith in the power of collective endeavor."

Yoshiaki Ishizawa, a 79-year-old scholar of Southeast Asian history who has served as president of Japan's Sophia University, devoted 50 years of his life to help preserve Cambodia's Angkor Wat, a 162-hectare (400-acre) temple, from the ravages of time and conflict, according to the foundation.

Conservation work at Angkor Wat was suspended for years under the Khmer Rouge. When the ultra-communist group fell from power in 1979, violence had decimated the pool of Cambodian conservationists. Ishizawa led an effort in Japan and Cambodia to save the temple, putting Cambodians at the center of the effort, the foundation said.

Gethsie Shanmugam, 82, a teacher and psychological counselor from Sri Lanka's minority Tamil community, won for braving bombings and threats of arrests in conflict zones to counsel war widows, orphans and children traumatized by three decades of brutal civil war in her country, the foundation said.

Abdon Nababan from Indonesia's Sumatra Island was cited for leading an effort to return state-controlled forest land to indigenous communities and give them a political voice and identity.

Singaporean businessman Tony Tay, who was abandoned by his father as a child and brought by his homeless mother to an orphanage, won the award for organizing volunteers starting in 1983 to cook and distribute thousands of free meal packs every day to feed the elderly, migrant workers and low-income families in his affluent nation.

Coming from a family of Philippine government officials, Lilia de Lima oversaw the opening of hundreds of job-generating export processing zones across the country as head of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority, earning her the award. Under her watch, the number of such export zones jumped by 2,000 percent to 343, boosting the economy and creating employment for more than 6 million Filipinos.

The private Philippine Educational Theater Association was founded in 1967 with an initial aim of creating a national theater but served as an artistic platform for protest when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law five years later. Its advocacies through the arts have since expanded to gender issues and disaster preparedness.

The association won the award for "shaping the theater arts as a force for social change."


Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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