An aid worker from Myanmar's Kachin ethnic minority has won Asia’s top human rights prize and pledged her prize money to charity while expressing concern over the plight of refugees in her homeland.
Lahpai Seng Raw, who founded in war-torn Kachin state what is now one of Myanmar’s largest and longest-running civil society organizations, was selected to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award in recognition of her work helping victims of civil conflict in the country across ethnic and political lines.
She is the fifth person from Myanmar to win the award, considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The 64-year-old widow and Metta Development Foundation founder was chosen for her “quietly inspiring and inclusive leadership in the midst of deep ethnic divides and prolonged armed conflict,” the Manila-based award committee said Wednesday.
Lahpai Seng Raw said she plans to put her U.S. $50,000 cash prize toward environmental protection in the country and toward supporting residents displaced by a controversial dam in Kachin state.
“I have planned to use the prize to work on preventing harmful environmental effects and helping people in the Myitsone Dam area of Kachin State return to their homes and begin their careers again,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The Chinese-backed dam was suspended, following local protests, two years ago by President Thein Sein, whose government signed a tenuous peace deal with Kachin rebels in May after intense fighting earlier in the year.
Myanmar has fought civil wars with ethnic rebels in its borderlands for decades since the country’s independence.
'Kachin state doesn't have peace yet'
Lahpai Seng Raw, who like many Kachins in Buddhist-majority Myanmar is a Christian, said she began her work with refugees in the 1980s at the request of a former Kachin Independence Organization chairman, establishing the Metta Development Foundation in 1998 to help rehabilitate war-ravaged communities along Myanmar’s borders.
Since then, the organization has expanded to include emergency relief, health care, and agriculture projects that have reached 600,000 people in five states and four regions across the country.
Lahpai Seng Raw said that although she was happy that through her foundation she has had the chance to provide aid to people of all ethnicities across Myanmar, she remains concerned about her Kachin homeland.
“I am glad that as a Kachin woman I was able to help victims of the  tsunami and [2008’s] Cyclone Nargis in Ayeyarwady, but my native place, Kachin state, doesn’t have peace yet,” she said.
“We have 70,000 refugees in Kachin state. I wish [for better lives] for them and I would like to help them to return their homes.”
'Promoting nonviolent culture'
Commending Lahpai Seng Raw for working with both the government and rebels, the Magsaysay Foundation said her work has empowered damaged communities, strengthened local NGOs, and helped promote “a non-violent culture of participation and dialogue as the foundation for Myanmar’s peaceful future.”
She will be presented with the award, named after a popular former Philippine president who died in a plane crash, at a ceremony in Manila on August 31, along with two other individuals and two organizations from other countries.
The foundation previously awarded two members of Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority: refugee doctor Cynthia Maung, who was given the prize in 2002 for her work at a clinic on the Myanmar-Thai border, and environmental and human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa, who received the award in 2009.
In 1959, the organization honored journalist and exile politician Edward Yaw Lone and philanthropist Tee Tee Luce, wife of British colonial scholar Gordon Luce.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.