The Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) announced that six individuals will receive Asia’s premier prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award. One of the Awardees is Ka Hsaw Wa, from Burma. He is being recognized for "his dauntlessly pursuing non violent yet effective channels of redress, exposure, and education for the defense of human rights, the environment, and democracy in Burma."

"The Magsaysay awardees of 2009," says RMAF President "are true Asian Heroes, putting their advanced knowledge and skills at the service of critical needs of their people. They are, each one, addressing major issues affecting the growth and preservation of their respective societies - health care, mass poverty, community displacement, environmental degradation, human rights. They are each using calibrated strategies to craft lasting solutions to problems besetting their people. Nevertheless, these six awardees share a greatness of spirit which infuses their leadership for change. They all build collaboration and seek consensus wherever possible. They all refuse to give up, despite adversity and opposition. Four of them share a passionate concern for the environment, which the Foundation wishes to give special attention to at this time.

Citation for the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award - KA HSAW WA

In Burma, large-scale human rights abuses are being committed and natural resources despoiled by the ruling military regime. The voices of the victims have largely been silenced. One young man has decided that these voices should be heard in the outside world, and their legitimate concerns addressed. Ka Hsaw Wa ceased to be a teenager abruptly and early. As a seventeen year-old student activist in the antidictatorship demonstrations of 1988, he was arrested and tortured for three days by the military. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the student uprising of August 1988 when an estimated ten thousand people were killed, he fled to the jungle (as did many others) to seek refuge. His wanderings exposed him to scenes and stories of the horrible atrocities committed against ordinary villagers. He decided then, instead of taking up arms as an insurgent as he had planned, he would take up the pen, record the abuses, and find a way to get these stories out into the world.

For five years, he talked to more than a thousand victims and witnesses of human rights and environmental abuses. Most of these abuses were connected to the building of the Yadana Gas Pipeline. Financed by the US-based Unocal and the French corporation Total, Yadana was then the largest foreign investment in Burma. In enforcing the project, the ruling junta, the project’s principal beneficiary, had militarized the area along the pipeline, dislocated communities, imposed forced labor, and damaged a rich, biodiverse environment. Ka Hsaw Wa was later joined in his documentation work by a visiting law student, Katie Redford, who had entered Burma to investigate the human rights situation. In 1995, they founded EarthRights International; they were married the following year.

EarthRights is a nonprofit organization with offices in the US and Thailand. It focuses on what it calls “earthrights,” the intersection of human rights and the environment, and combines “the power of law and the power of people” in defense of these rights. In 1996, EarthRights filed a case in the United States against Unocal with the help of private and publicinterest lawyers. The suit alleged that Unocal was complicit in the human rights and environmental abuses committed by the Burmese military in the building of the Yadana pipeline. After nearly ten years of complicated litigation, Unocal agreed to compensate the eleven victim-petitioners in the case. The petitioners decided to commit substantial funds from the compensation to humanitarian relief for other victims.

This precedent-setting case has served as a warning to the Burmese government and to multinationals investing in Burma. It has also inspired Ka Hsaw Wa and EarthRights to investigate other infrastructure projects in Burma and the larger Mekong Region, such as the mega-dams along the Mekong River and the Shwe natural gas pipeline project in which Burma’s military junta is collaborating with foreign investors. EarthRights does much more than litigation-related work. It carries out research, publication, and advocacy on behalf of the people of Burma. It maintains EarthRights Schools in Thailand, training young people from Burma and other countries in nonviolent social change, environmental monitoring, and community organizing. Its network of alumni has become, for EarthRights, an important resource for mutual assistance and information sharing. Equally important, the network has inspired EarthRights to hope that by training young people from Burma and neighboring countries it is planting the seeds of civil society throughout the region. Despite the constant threat of government reprisal, Ka Hsaw Wa stays committed to the mission he found in the jungles of Burma. “There’s no dead end for me,” he says. “I don’t give up easily, and I don’t like to give up.”

In electing Ka Hsaw Wa to receive the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his dauntlessly pursuing nonviolent yet effective channels of redress, exposure, and education for the defense of human rights, the environment, and democracy in Burma.

Ka Hsaw Wa, Co-Founder and Co-Director of EarthRights International

Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation