Magsaysay Award: Asian Nobel, Not So Noble


In the few pictures on display on the internet, he looks exceptionally handsome, with a strong and rugged face. But then so many of the past and present rulers were and are handsome. “And still they smiled and still the horror grew”. Born on August 31, 1907, he went on to become the president of the Philippines. Ramon Magsaysay’s name has since been linked to an award so famous that only the rhythmic sound of it reverberates and no image forms.

Magsaysay was born at a time when the country was firmly under the control of the United States of America. Major uprisings against the Americans had been largely suppressed by 1903, four years before his birth, but resistance in some form or the other continued until at least six years after. In 1901, the US army mindlessly and mercilessly went about killing Filipinos. In Samar, south of Luzon, brigadier general Jacob Hurd Smith gave orders to kill “everything over ten”. He wanted to make the island “a howling wilderness”.

Magsaysay was fortunate enough to have escaped facing the wrong end of the gun, as many of his countrymen did. Beginning his career as a mechanic in 1930 with Try Tran, a transportation company, he was elevated to the post of manager in the firm. He joined the US army in 1941, leading the guerrilla forces against the Japanese and was appointed military governor of Zambales in 1945, the place of his birth. When in July 1946, the Philippines was granted independence by the US after having driven the Japanese out, he contested as an independent candidate and was elected as representative of Zambales in the Philippine Congress. The same year, he joined the Liberal Party.

In 1949, the Hukbalahap, also known as Huk, a guerrilla unit, founded by Luis Taruc in the 1930s in central Luzon to give voice to agrarian unrest and later to fight against the Japanese forces, decided to go on a major offensive to achieve their goal of establishing their own government. As a result the fighting intensified, so did the counterinsurgency operations against the Huks, who, according to a conservative estimate numbered 15,000 with a quarter of a million active sympathisers. Meanwhile in November that year, Elpidio Quirino won the presidential seat in a fraudulent election about which it was said that he won on the “votes of trees, the birds, the insects and the monkeys”. In September 1950, president Quirino appointed Ramon Magsaysay as secretary of national defence in view of the worsening situation. After assuming charge, by then already “a passionate admirer of the Americans”, Magsaysay visited the US and obtained military assistance to fight the Huk insurgents. He fought all his battles against the Huks whilst sharing a house with Edward Lansdale, a US air force officer and military adviser in the joint US military adviser group (JUSMAG). Together they went about stifling the dissenting voices of the rebels.

In April 1951, Time magazine reported that, “At his headquarters, Magsaysay pounded the table so hard that the ashtray bounced, and barked orders”. The magazine went on to quote him as saying, “Put more men in and around Manila. I want every suspicious person searched, and every suspicious house raided…Burn the Huks out of Candaba swamps. There are 8,000 Huks in the country. That makes five Huks to each one of our platoons. Let us make this week the liquidation week!” Liquidation week it turned out to be because in that week alone his forces liquidated 300 insurgents, using methods which were both cunning and brutal. The army claimed that it had killed 1,363, captured 487 and forced 3,000 rebels to surrender ever since Magsaysay took charge as defence secretary of the Philippines. There must have been many more killed, many more captured and many more forced to surrender. “The world is richer and better because Ramon Magsaysay lived”, says the web site of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF). How, one wonders.

In November 1953, he was elected president of the Philippines and remained at that post till he died rather prematurely in a plane crash at mount Manunggal, Cebu on March 17, 1957.

The US and the Philippines

After having waged over 200 uprisings to get rid of the 377-year long Spanish colonial rule, the Filipinos found themselves in the grip of the Americans in 1898 through the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American war. Howard Zinn in his book, A People’s History of the United States describes a rather absurd rationale given by the then US president, William McKinley, about his decision to take over the Philippines. The president said to a group of ministers, “That we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and dishonourable. That we could not turn them over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable. That we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was. And that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilise and Christianise them….”

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, White Man’s Burden, written in 1899, in the context of the US invasion of the Philippines reflected the condescending attitude towards the non-western societies. It is this attitude that the west has not been able to overcome till date and it continues to treat other cultures as being in need of “civilising”. Satur C Ocampo, a rebel- turned-parliamentarian from the Bayan Muna party, describing the brutality of the US intervention argued, “As early as May 1901, US general Bell estimated that there were already 6,00,000 Filipino casualties in Luzon alone of which perhaps only between 15,000 and 20,000 were soldiers. This was only after two years of fighting and before the systematic ‘pacification campaigns’ in Luzon and the Visayas. Entire populations were herded into so-called ‘zones of protection’ and so many tens of thousands died from hunger, exposure and disease. Perhaps 1,00,000 Muslims were also killed in their resistance from 1903 to 1913 in Mindanao.”

US imperialism is said to be responsible for wiping out 10 to 15 per cent of the Filipino population, which translates into over a million deaths. The population of the Philippines was approximately eight million at that time. The declaration of independence might have meant the end of colonial rule for the Philippines, but it also heralded the beginning of neocolonialism with the US firmly holding the reins of power. Through a series of bilateral agreements – a euphemism for coercively imposed laws – the US continued its interventionist policy in the Philippines. The Military Bases Agreement of 1947 and the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1951 made the Philippines a client state of the US, a place where they could keep their soldiers posted and their nuclear warheads ready to launch at will. The laws and agreements such as the General Relations Property Act (1946), the Bell Trade Act (1946), the Parity Amendment (1947) and the Luarel-Langley Agreement (1954) further consolidated the US hold on the economy and polity of the country. By granting Americans equal economic rights as Filipinos and by tilting trade and investment relations in their favour, these laws upheld and deepened the interests of the US government and monopolistic capital.

The rulers, many of whom were chosen by “democratic” means from Elpidio Qirino to Ramon Magsaysay to Carlos P Garcia to Ferdinand E Marcos to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, have been pawns in the hands of the US, acting in the interests of their past colonial masters. They waged war against their own people – in the peasant uprisings of the 1930s, against the Hukbalahap and Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB) in the 1940s and 1950s, against the New People’s Army (NPA) since the 1960s, and against the Moro people since the 1970s.

It is not just a coincidence that an American industry giant like the Rockfeller familly, came forward to institute and fifinance the award in Magsaysay’s name, almost immediately after his death, as both the US administration and the American industry had huge stakes in the country. Ramon Magsaysay had thrived on American patronage and in return he too obliged them with remarkable alacrity. It was no surprise then that the Americans in instituting an award in his name did not just wanted to immortalise him but also provide legitimacy to his brand of politics.

The award was ostensibly created “to perpetuate his example of integrity in government, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society”.

If “integrity in government” could be construed as serving the interests of the oppressive ruling elite and a colonising country; or if, “courageous service to the people” could also mean brutally suppressing the dissenting voices; or if, the idea of “pragmatic idealism” could be stretched to mean fraudulent elections, then it is better to slip into quietude. Touted as the Nobel Prize of Asia, the award was originally supposed to be given under five categories. They were: government service; public service; community leadership; journalism, literature and creative communication arts; and peace and international understanding. The sixth category called emergent leadership was also included in the year 2000 with the grant from the Ford Foundation, another American industry giant. Since its inception in 1957, until this year, 268 people and institutions from Asia have received the award.

The most number of awards have been bagged by Indians. As many as 45 Indians have received the award in all the six categories, starting from Vinoba Bhave in 1958 to P Sainath in 2007 and Prakash and Mandakini Amte in 2008. The ease with which the award has been allowed to gain legitimacy and respectability in the eyes of the common people is disturbing. When Sandeep Pandey (from India) refused to take the award money in 2002, he did so (that too after much prodding) because the source of the money was the Ford Foundation.

This raises questions like: Is the Rockfeller money more sacrosanct than the Ford money? What about the man himself whose name the award carries and whose ideals it wants to perpetuate? Are the recipients not endorsing the oppressive and comprador nature of his politics in accepting the award? Should not one question the policies of the successive governments in the Philippines towards its own people? One can choose to ignore these and many other questions only at the peril of one’s own hard-earned credibility. Tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Than Shwe and many more still evoke emotion. Who would want to emulate the examples set by them? They are bad role models, so is Ramon Magsaysay. Would one honour an award instituted in memory of say, Augusto Pinochet or Idi Amin?

Rajender Singh Negi ( is a democratic rights activist based in Delhi.

Article courtesy, Economic and Political Weekly ( )

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The anti-Communist part of the story

Though this article rightly points out the way Magsaysay got elevated to a different stature,it doesn't mention the fact that this bounty was granted for his loyalty to the US empire in its Communist witch hunt,in the Cold War days.

Hukbalahaps used to be Communist revolutionary movement and after the National liberation struggle waged against Japan,its popularity did surge.The US grew vary of a potent Communist force in Asia,in the beginning days of Cold War,in a country which was(is) its semi-colony and elite counter insurgency support was provided to the Philippine state.Huks met with decisive blows during 50s itself but it chose to fight on.Splits took place during 60s,Taruc surrendered,but the insurgency survived,NPA had close to 25,000 fighters during Marcos's tenure.

To include Stalin in a list of "tyrants" without trying to portray the ideological reasons for US affinity towards Magsaysa,is an oversimplification of history.Huks were fighting for the cause that was greatly advanced by Stalin,despite the mistakes,and it Stalin was a tyrant,Huks being part of the international Communist movement were part of the tyranny in which case the Philippine struggle was a tussle between two tyrannies!

As always,the Left liberal critique of imperialism that I read here presents a weak case to be substantiated.