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Opinion: Tibet earthquake highlights tension

When China's government is nowhere to be found, its Buddhist monks rise to the occasion.

However, as the recovery process began centering around the monks, with survivors flocking to them for spiritual relief, old paranoia has crept up on the Chinese authorities. Many monasteries, anticipating backlash, have started pulling out monks. Hundreds of monks however have opted to stay, sparking fear of stand-off with Chinese soldiers in this fractured township where frigid temperature has impeded rescue operations in recent days. Locals have accused Chinese soldiers for shortchanging them for their ethnicity; recently reports have surfaced of Chinese soldiers stealing Tibetan pet dogs.

Though maps of Chinese-controlled Tibet show Kyegundo as being in Qinghai, it is traditionally in Kham province of Tibet, where China first invaded in 1950. Its inhabitants, famous for their fierce warrior nature, engaged Chinese soldiers in a protracted guerrilla-style resistance well into the early '70s — almost a decade after China occupied Tibet and forced into exile its leader, the Dalai Lama.

In 1965, China incorporated Kham and Amdo, where the Dalai Lama was born, into its provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu, leaving central Tibet as “Tibet Autonomous Region” or “TAR.”

Kyegundo was also the site of several protests in the wake of the March 2008 uprising. One revolt in Kyegundo involved hundreds of young herdsmen on horsebacks laying siege to a Chinese police station, before raising a Tibetan flag amid bursts of their traditional war cry, Kyi hi hi!

In the ensuing crackdown, hundreds of Tibetans were executed and thousands were taken into custody. There were signs of an international outcry, until a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan in May, killing more than 70,000 people. The Chinese government’s image as a bloody oppressor was softened into a quick-acting, humanitarian front.

To the larger population, Chinese government propaganda peddles two polarizing images of Tibetans. One is the ungrateful rioter, whose image circulated after the 2008 uprising. The other is the grateful subject, who smiles feverishly while shaking the hands of government officials, their clothes as new as the housing appliances surrounding them.

A third image is now being beamed out in the quake’s aftermath: one of the impoverished Tibetan whose destitution is as stark on the dead as it is on the living. Ironically, censorship of this image is made impossible by the temptation to glorify the army’s humanitarian efforts.

The Chinese President Hu Jintao was gracious enough to visit Kyegundo after the quake. But judging by a letter the locals have written to the Chinese leader, available on few websites, it is the Dalai Lama they want in their midst.

The Dalai Lama, who leads an exile Tibetan government in Dharamsala in India, has eschewed Tibetan independence, seeking only a meaningful autonomy within China. The Beijing leadership has time and again snubbed his reconciliatory overtures, calling him "a wolf in sheepskin."

For the thousands of dead, their only solace comes from religious customs otherwise banned in most of Tibet. For those who remain, their best healing lies in the Dalai Lama, who has not stepped foot in his country for more 50 years.

The Chinese leadership has, as expected, rejected the Tibetan leader's request to be allowed to visit the quake site. It is such insensitivity as this which will have further alienated a people who have little left to lose.

Topden Tsering is a Tibetan writer based in Berkeley.