Speech by Rev. Zendo Matsunaga, Second Forum
Rev. Zendo Matsunaga
Special Representative, Japan Buddhist Federation
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to meet all of you who have gathered here from nations around the world to improve the lives of children everywhere. Although I have the honor of representing the All Japan Buddhist Association and the Buddhist NGO Network Group in this forum, it is another organization I represent that I wish to tell you about today. That organization is a small Japanese NGO, the SVA (Shanti International Volunteer Association), founded in 1980 with the aim of assisting the Cambodian refugees in compounds near Thailand’s border with Cambodia.
Japan, having been defeated in World War II, decided in 1945 to adopt a constitution vowing never again to wage war, but to go forward as a nation of peace, dedicated to cooperation with all the nations of the world. Sixty years after the war. However, the honor of war has been forgotten and the preciousness of peace has also been forgotten. War brings suffering to people throughout the world, destroys the world environment, leads to the forgetting of everything except evil.
Further, the victims of fighting and maltreatment also end up forgotten. Needless to say, those victims particularly include the weak, children, and the old.
Recently the Global Network of Religions for Children has sounded an alarm about this reality, and because we must entrust our future to today’s children, has dedicated this second forum to them.
In 1980, when Thailand was flooded with Cambodian refugees, the SVA had some experiences concerning aid that I would like to tell you about. More than one million Cambodians, children, women, and many elderly people, who had fled the killing fields and land mines of their homeland, were sheltered as refugees by the UNHCR and the Thai government. Already many Western relief organizations were on the scene, providing medical treatment, food, water, sanitation, and shelter. We were amateurs in relief activities and did not at first know what we should do, so we just stood looking around. Wounded and exhausted people were everywhere; we saw tragic refugees on all sides, children deprived of their parents and siblings. Yet somehow the children gazed at us with bright eyes showing the joy of human life. We could not understand their language, and they could not understand ours, but we tried to become friends by getting sports equipment and initiating games with them. Only later, when we were on good terms with the children and able to get them to draw pictures with crayons, did we begin to understand how deeply wounded their hearts were. The picture drawn by the children were all scenes of killing; guns and knives, stacks of corpses. Even when we showed them picture of flowers or games or happy faces, all that they draw was suffering and death. Looking at those pictures, we could feel in the children’s health and brightness the power of their will to live.
Cambodia and Thailand are Buddhist countries. With the cooperation of Thai Buddhist clerics, we gradually learned what the refugees hoped for. Our aid workers also were able to learn about traditional Cambodian culture. This reciprocity brought living experience to our motto, “Learn together, live together”.
During the long disturbances in Cambodia, children were unable to receive essential education. With the approval of the UNHCR, we began to use our limited funds and workers to restore the children’s literacy in the Khmer language. During the period of killing, teachers and even others who could read write were considered as enemies of the unschooled villagers. At the same time, books and other written language, even signboards, were destroyed. Many refugee children had never seen their own kind of writing.
We made libraries for children inside the refugee camps, with picture books from Japan or Thailand which we had translated into Cambodia’s Khmer language as textbooks, using paper pasted over the original language to show the Khmer. At first there were very few books so a mobile library was made to visit each section of the camps; although there were few books, many children could see those books as the library proceeded along its route.
The children gathered in the reading room would each choose a book to read there. Older children would read aloud to those too young to be able to read for themselves. Seeing all those figures eagerly reading together, the Japanese volunteers joyfully applauded the children’s flourishing appetite for knowledge with the saying “A hungry silkworm dreams of eating mulberry leaves”. Children who until then had run to escape the killing fields could not even dream of reading picture books.
The mobile library had not long been established when the loss of one of its precious books was noticed. Upon investigating, we found that the mother of one of the children had taken the book to their living area. Asked why she did that, the mother said she dedicated to take the book upon learning that she and her child had received acceptance to be moved to Australia soon. “If we move to Australia, the children will forget their own country, Cambodia. So that they will remember the country of their ancestors, I wish to take along this book that is written in the Cambodian languages,“ she stated. This was her duty as a mother.
The ability to read and write has been called the most valuable ability of human beings. This is because literacy enables people to express their identities; to speak for oneself is to recognize one’s individual identity.
The world has many nations, many spoken languages, and many written languages, and each has its own unique culture. Although the world has so many words, forms of writing and cultures, not one of them is unneeded; each should be a cause for pride. People throughout the world recognizing each other’s valuable roles and nurturing them build the stating point for a world at peace.
The world’s children seek to learn everything there is to know. The SVA workers in Cambodia started with activities in support of refugees and advanced to learning many things themselves.
From here onward, the SVA continues to provide aid, not only in Cambodia, but also in Laos and Myanmar, and recently in Afghanistan, building schools, making textbooks, and founding libraries. Also, in areas with a shortage of teachers, there is assistance in teacher training. There are still many, many needed tasks to be performed. And we can learn from those activities as well. To people who have generously supported our activities, we wish to send news in return, not only to Japan but throughout the world. In that way, the understanding we have gained from those we seek to assist can be spread father and promote human understanding everywhere it goes. This is the meaning of the SVA vow to “learn together and live together”.
On April 23 to 24 this year, a Children’s Parliament was held in Japan with the theme of Education for All the World’s Children. Children throughout the world have a right to receive high-quality education without regard for race, religion, gender, language, geographic location, wealth or poverty, having or not having disabilities, without exception and with no discrimination. At any time, in any place, we are all equally free to challenge our own potentialities. Under this proclamation, the NGOs and educators networks of the world’s one hundred eighty nations move forward throughout the world.
We have vowed to act simultaneously around the world for children’s education. SVA members give our wholehearted support to participating in this movement.
It is my deepest hope that each of you gathered in this meeting hall today will return to your own country with a new determination to bring education to all the world’s children. In that way, we can all work together to build a peaceful world.
Thank you for listening.