By Tim Bulkeley
I always enjoy graduations. They are a time for pride. Graduation marks the capstone of several years of thinking about, learning and applying new ideas and techniques. At a graduation, students and their families look back on years of preparation and hard work, teachers remember new skills being practised, new ideas that began to make sense.
At a college like Carey Baptist College there is also pride in the God who has sustained and inspired the community, and whose wisdom and love have been the object of the learning. So we pray and sing hymns and worship songs.
Like at a rugby or netball test this sense of pride is also traditionally expressed by singing the National Anthem. (Not least because the degrees being awarded are nationally recognised so the ceremony is not only religious but also a civil one.) Even a poor anthem with a dull tune or strange wording inspires feelings of national pride. (Why do the Aussies sing about Girt By Sea? Is it a seaside town in old Blighty?)
As well as enjoying graduations, I enjoy watching the Kiwi teams sing it at sporting events. Unlike many teams, the Ferns and All Blacks join the singing, seeming to know all the words in both Maori and English.
So at the recent Carey graduation my heart was full of pride in the graduates (I’ve watched and tried to assist their efforts), in the college (and the churches that support it and that it seeks to serve), in the God whose love and grace are both the object of study and make it possible, but also in my adopted country.
For all its failings, New Zealand is a country low in corruption, high on mutual respect and understanding, where we want everyone to get a fair go, yet where those less gifted or wealthy receive the help they need.
Our military do not fight merely for national self interest, but most often serve as peace keepers in trouble spots near and far, helping bring a decent life to others. We have much cause for national pride, and at the Carey graduation we sang with pride and gusto asking Ihowa Atua (the God of the Bible) to defend our country.
But just a few weeks later I feel differently. I received a copy of the report Displaced Childhoods from Partners Relief and Development, one of the NGOs that produced the document. It tries to both give stories and to measure the impact on children who are internally displaced in Burma/Myanmar.
Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are those who have been chased from their villages by the army, who then burns their crops and places landmines to ensure the inhabitants do not return. IDPs live in hiding in the jungle. They have no proper schools or homes, and even food and medicines are often difficult. In such a situation the young and the old are especially at risk.
People do not choose to become internally displaced. According to Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma (2000-2008), internal displacement results from “a combination of coercive measures, such as forced labor, extortion and land confiscation.” This coercion is applied by the government.
One boy (now 19) described the situation before they fled like this: “Our village was attacked many times. [The Burmese Army] would come and take whatever they wanted from the village. Anything they don’t want, they’d burn. Everyone runs when the soldiers come. If we stop and cannot continue, we’ll be shot at. They’ll shoot anyone.”
There is an alternative to hiding in the jungle from the army. The government provides relocation camps, but conditions in many of these camps are terrible. One man spoke of his experiences: “Everyone in my family got sick within a year of being forcibly relocated. My 3-year-old and 6-year-old got sick so quickly. They couldn’t eat and got terrible fever and diarrhoea. Within a week they were both dead … most of the children from my community died in that year.”
In the end many of these displaced people cross the border to refugee camps in Thailand. There life is restricted. They cannot work but must live on a food ration. They may not leave the camp, there is little space for sport or exercise, education is limited. Yet in the largest camp the Baptist churches recently held a graduation for their Bible school.
There too, pride in achievement, pride in friends and family, in churches and in the God who sustains and enables was sung. Judging by the choir practices we listened to while teaching in the English medium stream earlier this year (while on sabbatical from Carey), their hymns and choruses will have been sung with even more pride and emotion than at the Carey graduation the same weekend.
What has all this to do with the patriotism of a nationalised Kiwi? Well, I have written to my MP, and to the foreign minister to ask what New Zealand is doing to try to ensure that the government in Burma/Myanmar changes the way it treats its children.
But I fear that so few of us will express any concern for all those “displaced childhoods” that their reply will translate as “not very much.” I’ll sing “God Defend New Zealand” with pride and gusto again when it seems that our nation cares as much about the systematic abuse of children far away as it does for a “fair go” for those closer to home.
• The Displaced Childhoods report is available on the Partners website, partnersworld.org.nz.