Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of Burma’s largest civil society organization, is among five winners of the Philippines’ prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award this year.
The 64-year-old widow, whose Metta Development Foundation has worked to provide support to displaced people in Burma’s conflict-torn areas and rehabilitate affected communities, told The Irrawaddy that she was deeply honored to receive the award, which many consider to be Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize. Lahpai Seng Raw is the first ethnic Kachin to win the award, which was given in recognition of the more than two decades of social assistance given by the humanitarian.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) said in their announcement on Wednesday that Lahpai Seng Raw was recognized for “her quietly inspiring and inclusive leadership—in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict—to regenerate and empower damaged communities and to strengthen local NGOs in promoting a non-violent culture of participation and dialogue as the foundation for Myanmar’s peaceful future.”
In a telephone interview with The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Laphai Seng Raw said credit for her achievements was to be shared.
“I am deeply honored by this award, but also humbled in the knowledge that I owe it all to the host of wonderful friends, colleagues and partners at home and abroad, who have sustained me in my work with their wise counsel, help and encouragement.”
Laphai Seng Raw is one of four female founders, along with one other Kachin woman and two ethnic Karen women, who established the Metta Development Foundation in 1997 to support displaced persons in areas of Burma where ceasefire agreements had been reached. The RMAF award winner said the recognition was due to the team effort of her foundation.
“So I accept this award not as a personal honor, but as a celebration of our collective achievement,” she said.
Over the last 15 years, the Metta Development Foundation has joined hands with many of Burma’s ethnic minorities, including the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Mon. It has provided assistance to the displaced and those otherwise affected by the “man-created disasters in Burma’s ethnic areas,” a mission it expanded in 2004 to include those affected by natural disasters.
Laphai Seng Raw added that “the award highlights that there is much to be done for the people along with the changes in the country’s transition” toward democracy.
The awardee said she would continue the work that her foundation has been doing, although she handed over leadership of the organization to a successor two years ago.
Born in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina and a graduate of Rangoon University, Laphai Seng Raw was a stay-at-home mother of one before embarking 25 years ago on a career in social development. She told The Irrawaddy that her involvement in social work was rooted in encouragement from the late Maran Brang Seng, chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the 1980s.
Laphai Seng Raw said the award’s $50,000 cash prize would go toward development projects to “provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the communities,” especially in the Myitsone area of Kachin State, where the confluence of two smaller waterways forms the Irrawaddy River. Local villagers there were relocated for a massive Chinese-backed dam project that has since been suspended.
Along with Laphai Seng Raw, Afghan Dr Habiba Sarabi, Filipino Dr Ernesto Domingo, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission and the Nepalese anti-human trafficking organization Shakti Samuha were also honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
RMAF President Carmencita Abella said in the statement that “each of this year’s awardees is showing us that there are ways to build genuine success, one smart and persistent step at a time.
“Working selflessly in unpretentious yet powerful ways, they are showing us how commitment, competence and collaborative leadership can truly create ripples of change, even from the bottom of the pyramid,” Abella added.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award was first given in 1957 and is named after the popular Filipino president, who was highly respected for his humility and service to humanity. It is awarded every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who “manifest the same sense of selfless service” as the late Filipino leader, according to RMAF.
Laphai Seng Raw will attend the award ceremony in Manila on Aug. 31. She will be accompanied by her successor, Dr Sai Sam Kham.
The ethnic Kachin leader is the fifth Magsaysay Award winner from Burma. The previous winners were the founder of the English-language Nation newspaper (shut down during the Ne Win regime) Edward Michael Law-Yone in 1959; social worker Tee Tee Luce (1959), for her public; Mae Tao Clinic founder Dr Cynthia Maung (2002), for her health services to Burmese migrants and refugees; and human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa (2009), co-founder of Earth Rights International.