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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Opinion: Tibet earthquake highlights tension

April 26, 2010

By Topden Tsering, Special to GlobalPost

Published: April 25, 2010 09:21 ET

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 crept has
upon 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.
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