Monks’ rescues played down
China orders them out of quake zone
BEIJING — Earthquake survivors say it was the Tibetan monks who helped first, bringing food, pitching tents, and digging through rubble after disaster hit far Western China a week ago, killing thousands.
Now those Buddhist monks are being pushed out of the disaster area and off of state media — apparently sidelined by Beijing’s unease with their heroism and influence.
Monasteries were given orders the last two days to recall their monks. Amid hours of coverage for China’s national day of mourning yesterday, no monks were visible in the official proceedings — a jarring omission in light of their contributions to the weeklong rescue and relief effort. The April 14 quake killed 2,064 people and injured more than 12,000.
Tsebtrim, an ethnic Tibetan who works as a translator in Yushu, the county in Qinghai province hit hardest, was among thousands left homeless. He recalls heading to the horse racing grounds with hundreds of others who heard it would be a safe place if the local dam broke.
“There were these monks from Sichuan’s Ganzi who had put up all these tents, 100 tents, in just a couple of hours, and they provided drinks and food,’’ said Tsebtrim, 31, who like many Tibetans goes by just one name. “That night, a lot of people didn’t have a place to stay so I am really glad those monks showed up.’’
In the days that followed, Tsebtrim saw monks digging through rubble for survivors and bodies, first alone and then with the help of Chinese soldiers. He also saw them handing out food and medicine.
“It really impressed me a lot,’’ he said.
This week, Chinese military officials said nearly all the roughly 12,000 soldiers who rushed to the quake area struggled with altitude sickness, and many had trouble communicating with Tibetan survivors. Tibetan-speaking monks, many of whom live in high-altitude areas, did not have those problems.
On Saturday, they held a cremation ceremony, preparing hundreds of bodies, praying, and burning the corpses outside of Yushu.
Yet state-run broadcasters have given scant attention to their efforts, spotlighting instead the hard work of the military and the People’s Armed Police.
Monks also live in the quake zone, though they were not shown in media coverage yesterday.
Robbie Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, said the monks’ contributions pose a dilemma for the communist leadership, which distrusts the Buddhist clergy because of their loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
Beijing insists the Dalai Lama is fighting for independence for Tibet, a charge the exiled spiritual leader denies. He says he seeks only significant autonomy for Tibet under continued Chinese rule.
Monasteries are kept under tight control by Communist Party authorities, who routinely order political reeducation campaigns for the monks. The tensions have occasionally erupted in violence.
“China has never faced this situation before, where the monks it has demonized for 15 years as potential enemies of the state turn out to be energetic contributors to social construction and community-building — the same role that the party has always claimed for itself,’’ Barnett said in an e-mail.
“Perhaps that’s why the work of the monks has been featured very little, if at all’’ on China Central Television, he said.