Over half a century of war and authoritarian rule has ravaged Laos, resulting in large-scale destruction, loss of lives, and a country that remains one of the world’s poorest. Yet it is a testament to the Laotian people that despite all this, here greatness of the human spirit has not been extinguished.
Born into a farming family, Kommaly Chanthavong lived through all her country’s tragedies. Losing her father in the Indochina War, she was a refugee at age thirteen, walking barefoot over six hundred kilometers from her village in eastern Laos to Vientiane to escape the bombings during the Vietnam War. Through sheer perseverance, she pursued her studies in Vientiane and in 1966 earned a nursing diploma; in 1972 she married and raised a family. After the communist takeover of Vientiane, life was extremely difficult and she had to walk long distances from village to village buying and selling goods between Laos and Thailand.Through these turbulent changes, one thing remained constant for Kommaly—her love for silk weaving, which she learned from her mother when she was only five years old; in fact, fleeing her village in 1961 all she took with her were heirloom pieces of woven silk handed down from her grandmothers. In Vientiane, seeing war-displaced, rural women in desperate need of work, she used her meager savings to buy looms, and in 1976 started in her home a weaving group of ten women, whom she called the “Phontong Weavers.”
Thus began Kommaly’s valiant efforts to help women earn a living and revive Lao silk weaving, a deeply esteemed tradition rapidly disappearing because of the convulsions of war. Her original group grew to become Phontong Handicraft Cooperative—a network of Lao artisans now spanning thirty-five villages and connecting over 450 artisans. Impressed by her success, the Lao government leased to Kommaly in the early 1980’s forty-two hectares of land in northeast Laos for use as a silk farm. It was barren, heavily bombed-out land, littered with unexploded landmines that Kommaly and her group had to personally dig out before they could start planting trees. This has since become Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, dedicated to the revival of Lao silk production, with hectares planted to mulberry trees, specially-built temperature-controlled buildings to house all stages of silk production, a large garden providing raw materials for natural dyeing, and a cattle-raising area producing manure as organic fertilizers. Since its establishment, the farm has trained over a thousand farmers and weavers and has created over three thousand jobs.
But Kommaly’s initiatives went even further. In 1990 she started Camacrafts, a non-profit project that markets traditional Lao and Hmong handicrafts, working with hundreds of women in twenty villages. Three years later, she created Mulberries, a social enterprise that initiates income-generating projects around traditional arts and crafts, including the production of mulberry tea, wine, and soap. More than two thousand villagers in five provinces have benefitted from this. In 1993, the Lao Sericulture Company was launched to oversee and manage Kommaly’s many initiatives. Her amazing work has covered the whole cycle of silk production, from growing mulberry trees, raising silkworms, creating natural dyes, to training, research, provision of tools, and local and international marketing of highly-prized handmade silk items. Despite numerous adversities, she has traversed villages to personally teach and encourage weaving, and to patiently set up silk houses where young women and men can weave world-class products. The soft-spoken Kommaly says of her decades-long work, “Our goal is to strengthen the position of women by giving them a dependable income and thus improve the chances of their children.” Clearly, she has done this—and much more.
In electing Kommaly Chanthavong to receive the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her fearless, indomitable spirit to revive and develop the ancient Laotian art of silk weaving, creating livelihoods for thousands of poor, war-displaced Laotians, and thus preserving the dignity of women and her nation’s priceless silken cultural treasure.
I am very happy on this occasion to accept the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. It is a great honor for myself and all my co-workers in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). This distinguished award will light the way into the future of our work, and will give energy and strength to the small community of silk producers that I lead.
In the past women in remote rural villages, in mountainous regions like the place where I was born, did not have the same rights as men because women were only given the responsibility of raising children and doing household work. In those days women had limited opportunities for education, and were, therefore, unable to contribute to the family by earning money the way men did. But producing silk and weaving were ways with which women could make money to assist in caring for their families. This gave them a voice with which to speak to men regarding their families and communities; slowly this livelihood raised the status of women in our society.
Silk production and weaving are the proud ancient knowledge of Lao women, and many rural women passed on this knowledge from mother to daughter for many generations. Lao women have a responsibility to guard and develop this wonderful cultural heritage.
Silk production and weaving have created livelihoods for young women in their rural villages, thus reducing the need to flee to large towns and cities in search of work. In these places, many of them are at risk in so many ways.
The things you are hearing from my heart about the rights of women, the effort to preserve the proud heritage of silk handicrafts, and the flight of women to the cities to find work—these are all things that have motivated me to pour all my abilities—body and soul—into establishing this small concern that I have led since 1976.
It is my observation that the handicraft production that my co-workers and I are supporting has reduced the destruction of our forests caused by slash-and-burn upland rice farming. This is also protecting our water resources for developing agricultural production, in accordance with the policy of the Lao PDR government, which has called on all sectors to implement with urgency.
My co-workers, the villagers, and I are working with energetic enthusiasm to build an auspicious stairway on which we hope our future efforts will ascend until we achieve the lofty goals we have set for ourselves. It is the responsibility of our young people—especially our young Lao women—to take up the role of continuing this enterprise.
The strength and generous hearts of hardworking young women in this effort may encounter difficulty, so the cooperative assistance of the Lao Party and government, private citizens, international organizations, NGOs and other organizations will be needed. These young women will need our financial investment, our collective wisdom, and our technical expertise to help them continue our courageous endeavor.
We confidently believe that a good quality of life—and lasting security for individuals, families and communities—will require the support of the people from within Laos and all those with hearts to help, who will together build a new and bright generation that understands their responsibility for the future of their community.
Finally, I want to again express my deep gratitude to the president of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and the foundation’s trustees for choosing to honor me with this distinguished award. Thank you!