Opinion: Tibet earthquake highlights tension

BERKELEY, Cali. — In a sign that the Chinese government is threatened by the central role Buddhist monks have played in rescue and recovery efforts in eastern Tibet's Kyegundo, the site of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake on April 14, they have ordered the Tibetan monks out of the disaster zone. Beijing's nervousness in acknowledging the heroism of the monks, and its rejection of request to visit the quake site by the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, have deepened tensions with the region's predominantly-Tibetan population.

Locals say the government has underestimated the number of dead, ninety percent of which are Tibetans, to avoid scrutiny of its shoddy housing arrangements for Tibetan nomads whose poorly-built hovels had been the first to collapse. Also, many of the school buildings that have crumbled were reportedly built by the same government-contracted builders who are blamed for the deaths of the tens of thousands of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Xinhua, the government mouthpiece, reports 2,039 dead; Tibetans say the number could be well over 10,000. Over a hundred thousand have been left homeless.

For two full days after the earthquake, the worst to have hit Tibet, when government relief was nowhere to be found, it was thousands of monks from neighboring monasteries who rushed to the disaster site, bringing aid, blankets, tents and food supplies. With bare hands and pick axes, they dug survivors out from the rubble, and comforted those who had lost family and friends.

When Chinese soldiers finally arrived, elbowing monks out of rescue operations so they could capitalize on the media spotlight, monks stayed behind to provide proper rites of passage to the dead, as would have befitted the Buddhist faith of their living incarnations. They offered prayers while thousands of corpses were consigned en-masse into raging pyres. Traditionally, after their death, the bodies of Tibetans are cut up and fed to vultures, in what is known as “Sky Burial;” this time around, as the locals found, there just weren’t enough birds to feed on the dead.


Post-earthquake pictures of Kyegundo show most buildings left standing are those of government offices or Chinese businesses. Almost all battered structures were Tibetan homes. These mud-and-timber tenement style houses had sprouted up in the late '90s after the government forced local nomads and herdsman to resettle. The resettlement program was prompted by government paranoia that a free-roaming people could easily revolt. The newly-displaced Tibetans were given little help in the way of rehabilitation, to exacerbate which problem was the influx of Chinese immigrant workers. Pushed to utter impoverishment, these Tibetans put up numerous protests but were largely left with little resources with which to cope.

The Chinese government cited grass preservation as reasons for the resettlement project, but Tibetans say it was also the region's gold mining prospects, in addition to its dam-building plans, that attributed to their dislocation from their grasslands. Days after the earthquake struck, rescue efforts were carried out amid fears of bursting of a big dam, which had been built further up in the mountains at the confluence of three major rivers.

Tibetan survivors complained that state workers tended first to victims with work unit affiliations, constituting mostly Chinese migrant workers, which left them with no choice but to turn for help to crimson-robed monks. Malcolm Moore, a reporter for Telegraph, quoted a Tibetan monk on April 18 as remarking about the Chinese army, “They staged a show with the aid trucks, pretending to deliver food, but actually driving past us. Look around you, the Tibetan families here have no food, water or medicine.”

Tibetan monks, though vowed to lives away from social hubbub, have been at the forefront of the Tibetan freedom movement, both inside Tibet and in exile, as symbolized best by the Dalai Lama who lives in India. The protests that erupted in Lhasa in 1987, which resulted in imposition of martial law in 1989, were led by monks from monasteries in and around Lhasa. The 2008 uprising that swept through the whole of Tibet began with a sit-in on March 10 in the Tibetan capital by monks from Drepung monastery who were demanding the release of fellow-monks who had been arrested the previous year for celebrating the Dalai Lama's winning of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.

The Kyegundo earthquake foisted a new relationship with Buddhist monks for the Chinese government which has traditionally viewed with paranoia the Tibetan clergy for their independence aspirations. The Chinese soldiers whose vocation it had been to arrest and beat Tibetan monks, for once, found themselves on the same side, as co-helpers in digging out survivors and saving lives.

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.