Cambodian psychiatrist helping genocide survivors wins ‘Asia’s Nobel Prize’

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A Cambodian psychiatrist treating victims of the Khmer Rouge and a French environmentalist cleaning up Indonesian rivers were among the winners Wednesday of the 2022 Ramon Magsaysay Award – considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.

The annual award, established in 1957 and named after a Philippine president who died in a plane crash, honors those who have performed “selfless service to the peoples of Asia.”

The foundation that runs the award named four winners in an online announcement.

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Among them was Sotheara Chhim, 54, a psychiatrist and survivor of the murderous, ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork and mass executions in the 1970s.

He was cited for devoting his life to helping people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge, with a focus on treating “baksbat” – or “broken courage” – a syndrome seen in Cambodia that is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Magsaysay Award organizers praised “his calm courage in surmounting deep trauma to become his people’s healer.”

“It’s not easy to work with trauma survivors, to listen to the trauma stories of the people as it reminded me a lot about the trauma I suffered myself,” Sotheara Chhim told AFP in an interview Wednesday, adding the award came as a “surprise.”

“I feel that the more I help people, it heals myself too,” said the psychiatrist, describing his work as “a kind of catharsis.”

He also testified as an expert witness before a United Nations-backed tribunal trying senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

A scavenger paddles his wooden boat to collect plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum river choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java province on June 26, 2019. (AFP)
A scavenger paddles his wooden boat to collect plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum river choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java province on June 26, 2019. (AFP)

French environmental activist and filmmaker Gary Bencheghib, 27, was given the award for his efforts to clean up Indonesia’s polluted waterways.

Bencheghib and his brother have built kayaks made of plastic bottles and bamboo to pick up trash in the Citarum river, one of the most polluted in the world.

Filipino doctor Bernadette Madrid, 64, also received the award for setting up child protection centers across the Philippines to help domestic abuse victims.

And Japanese ophthalmologist Tadashi Hattori, 58, was honored for providing free eye surgeries in Vietnam, where such specialists and facilities are limited.

His generosity, the Magsaysay Award foundation said, was “the embodiment of individual social responsibility.”

An in-person ceremony honoring the winners will be held in Manila in November.

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