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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

After Quake, Ethnic Tibetans Distrust China’s Help

April 18, 2010

JIEGU, China — The Buddhist monks stood atop the jagged remains of a vocational school, struggling to move concrete slabs with pickax shovels and bare hands. Suddenly a cry went out: An arm, clearly lifeless, was poking through the debris.
But before the monks could finish their task, a group of Chinese soldiers who had been relaxing on the school grounds sprang to action. They put on their army caps, waved the monks away, and with a video camera for their unit rolling, quickly extricated the body of a young girl.
The monks stifled their rage and stood below, mumbling a Tibetan prayer for the dead.
“You won’t see the cameras while we are working,” said one of the monks, Ga Tsai, who with 200 others, had driven from their lamasery in Sichuan Province as soon as they heard about the quake.
“We want to save lives. They see this tragedy as an opportunity to make propaganda.”
Since a deadly earthquake nearly flattened this predominantly Tibetan city early Wednesday, killing at least 1,400 people, China’s leadership has treated the quake as a dual emergency — a humanitarian crisis almost three miles above sea level in remote Qinghai Province, and a fresh test of the Communist Party’s ability to keep a lid on dissent among restive Tibetans.
President Hu Jintao cut short a state visit to Brazil to fly home and supervise relief efforts, while Prime Minister Wen Jiabao postponed his own planned visit to Indonesia and came to the quake site promising that China’s Han majority would do whatever it could to aid the Tibetans.
The official state media prominently featured stories of grateful Tibetans receiving food and tents, and search and rescue specialists toiling to reach survivors even as they cope with altitude sickness.
The relief effort has indeed been impressive. With thousands of soldiers and truckloads of food clogging Jiegu’s streets on Saturday, earth-moving equipment started clearing away toppled buildings from the downtown. More than 600 of the seriously injured have been taken to hospitals in the provincial capital 500 miles away. In recent days, blue tents bearing the Civil Affairs Ministry logo have popped up across the city.
But despite outward signs of government largess and ethnic unity, the earthquake has exposed stubborn tensions between Beijing and Tibetans, many of whom have long struggled to maintain their autonomy and cultural identity amid a Han-dominated country. Widespread Tibetan rioting against Han rule severely disrupted Beijing’s planning to host the Summer Olympics in 2008, and China has kept Tibet and predominantly ethnically Tibetan regions of China under tight police and military control since then.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader who has not set foot in China since 1959, has issued a formal request to visit the disaster zone. It will most surely be denied.
Since the quake hit early Wednesday morning, thousands of monks have come to the city, some making a two-day drive from distant corners of a largely Tibetan region that spreads across three adjoining provinces.
It was the burgundy-robed monks who were among the first to pull people from collapsed buildings. On Saturday at dusk, long after the rescue experts had called it quits, they could be still be seen working the rubble.
“They are everything to us,” said Oh Zhu Tsai Jia, 57, opening the trunk of his car so a group of young monks could pray over the body of his wife.
On Saturday morning, the monks ferried 1,400 bodies from the city’s main monastery to a dusty rise overlooking the city.
There, in two long trenches filled with salvaged wood, they dumped the dead and set cremation pyres ablaze.
As the fires burned for much of the day, hundreds of mourners sat mutely on a hillside next to the monks, who chanted aloud or quietly counted prayer beads of red coral and turquoise.
The police and Han officials were conspicuously absent.
The monastery’s leaders said no one from the local government had included their dead in the official tally although they were careful not to voice any criticism. Many of the younger monks, however, were not as reticent.
At the No. 3 Primary School, the monks said they had pulled 50 students from collapsed classrooms but when an official came by to ask how many had died, the police offered half that number. “I think they’re afraid to let the world know how bad this earthquake is,” said Gen Ga Ja Ba, a 23-year-old monk.
One of the most persistent complaints, however, was that many of the official rescue efforts have focused on the city’s larger structures and ignored the mud-brick homes that, with few exceptions, collapsed by the hundreds. Others spoke of skirmishes with the police over bodies, although such accounts could not be verified.
The other more incendiary criticism heard wherever monks gathered was that soldiers had prevented them from helping in rescue efforts during the first few days after the earthquake.
Tsairen, a monk, spoke about how he and scores of other monks tussled with soldiers at a collapsed hotel that first night. “We asked why they wouldn’t let us help, and they just ignored us,” said Tsairen, who like some Tibetans, uses only one name.
Later, he and more than 100 others headed to the vocational school, where the voices of trapped girls could still be heard in the rubble of a collapsed dormitory.
They said the soldiers blocked them from the pile and later, the chief of their monastery, Ga Tsai, scuffled with a man they described as the county chief.
“He grabbed me by my robe and dragged me out to the street,” Ga Tsai said.
In the evening after the soldiers had left the scene, they went to work, eventually pulling out more than a dozen bodies.
Even if exaggerated, such stories can only work against the government’s efforts to win over Tibetans.
In recent days, the government has vowed to rebuild Jiegu, which is also known by its Chinese name Yushu, promising to spare no expense. But while many Tibetans expressed gratitude for the relief efforts and the official outpouring of concern, others were less appreciative.
As an excavator and a bulldozer sifted through the remains of the vocational school dormitory on Saturday, Gong Jin Ba Ji, a 16-year-old student, stood watching.
A day earlier, she said, the machinery inadvertently tore apart the body of a classmate. She was still waiting for them to recover the body of her older sister.
“I wish they would work more carefully,” she said numbly. “Maybe they don’t care so much because we are only Tibetans.”
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