Monday, April 26, 2010

China urges Tibetan monks to leave quake zone

by Staff Writers

Beijing (AFP) April 23, 2010

China said Friday that Tibetan monks who rushed to its earthquake disaster zone to aid rescue efforts had been urged to return home to avoid hindering relief operations in the often restive region.

"The duties of rescue workers in the quake zone are basically over, and the focus has moved to disease prevention and reconstruction, which need specialised people," the State Council, or Cabinet, said in a statement.

"While fully recognising the positive contributions of the monks that came from other areas, we suggested to them that they return to their monasteries to ensure the high effectiveness and order of quake relief work," it said.

The statement confirms the accounts of activists who had said earlier the government ordered Tibetan Buddhist monks who had travelled to remote quake-hit areas in the northwestern province of Qinghai to return home.

However, in a possible sign of crossed signals in government ranks on how to handle the sensitive issue, state-run Xinhua news agency later issued a report saying no such orders were given.

"We did not give or receive any orders of such kind. Actually, we are very grateful for the role Tibetan monks played in the relief effort," it quoted Wang Yuhu, governor of quake-hit Yushu prefecture, as saying.

Monks came from monasteries around the region to help with relief efforts after the 6.9-magnitude quake struck in the traditional Tibetan heartland, killing at least 2,187 people and leaving another 80 missing.

Tibetan Buddhist monks played a key early role in the response to the April 14 earthquake -- searching for survivors, distributing food and cremating hundreds of dead.

These efforts have been largely passed over in state media reports that have focused on the government response, which Tibet activists attributed to Beijing's unease over the strong influence of the area's lamas and monks.

But the State Council said it recognised the contributions made by monks.

"After the quake, monks in Yushu rapidly took part in rescue efforts along with other people, religious groups continuously donated money and aid, continued to organise religious activities such as prayers, and played a positive role," the statement said.

The region's lamas and monks remain a point of concern for Beijing following bloody anti-Chinese unrest across the region in 2008 that stemmed from initial peaceful protests by monks in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Monks in the quake zone openly expressed to AFP journalists their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader blamed by China for instigating the 2008 unrest. He denies the charge.

"The government's attitude is that the lamas are an unstable element, this is especially so following the unrest," Woeser, a leading Tibetan blogger and activist, told AFP on Thursday.

She said monks had been told to leave as "they had already done too much and that if they stayed it could become troublesome."

Authorities had repeatedly advised well-meaning civilians not to flood into the area which lies at an altitude of 4,000 metres (13,200 feet), saying it could hinder relief efforts.

On Thursday, the activist group Free Tibet accused the government of "air-brushing" monks out of the official portrayal of the disaster for political reasons.

The Voice of Tibet (VOT) radio service also said Thursday that Chinese authorities were jamming condolence messages it was transmitting from exiled Tibetans over the deadly earthquake.

earlier related report

Tibetan monks' heroism absent in China quake portrayal

Beijing (AFP) April 22, 2010 - Tibetan monks played a key role in the response to China's earthquake, but their efforts were "airbrushed" by a government that views them as a political threat, activists said Thursday.

Buddhist monks in the quake zone and from neighbouring communities began rescuing survivors and distributing food donations to victims -- nearly all of them ethnic Tibetans -- shortly after the April 14 quake.

They even handled the grisly task of cremating hundreds of dead as the official response to the 6.9 magnitude quake in remote Qinghai province which has killed nearly 2,200 people was still lurching into life.

But their efforts have been passed over by a government still smarting from bloody anti-Chinese unrest in Tibetan regions in 2008 and fearful over the high profile and influence of the Buddhist elite, said Tibetan activist Woeser.

"The government's attitude is that the Lamas are an unstable element, this is especially so following the unrest in March 2008," Woeser, a Tibetan poet, blogger and leading rights activist, told AFP.

Since last Wednesday's quake, state media have lavished attention on a government disaster response that officials have admitted was slow-starting due to the region's remoteness, bad weather and altitude sickness hitting rescuers.

But while foreign journalists have been allowed unfettered access to the hardest-hit areas, official coverage of the contributions by monks who were unaffected by the 4,000-metre (13,000 feet) heights has been virtually nil.

The task of cremating hundreds of dead, a key step to reduce disease risks that monks and lamas performed in a Buddhist ceremony, was barely mentioned.

If shown at all on state television, monks were mostly seen applauding the efforts of the Communist government as state media lavished attention on visits to the region by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The region's allegiance to the exiled Dalai Lama -- the Tibetan spiritual leader who China insists is bent on independence for his homeland -- is likely the main reason state media has largely ignored the monk's heroism, Woeser said.

The Dalai Lama called Saturday for permission to visit earthquake victims in Qinghai, where he was born nearly 75 years ago, stirred hopes among Tibetans and added to Beijing's concerns, she added. China has not responded.

The Dalai Lama has not set foot in China since 1959, when he fled after a failed anti-Chinese uprising. He denies China's accusations against him.

The London-based group Free Tibet said the Chinese government's portrayal of the disaster exploited the tragedy for political aims.

"China's determination to colonise even Tibet's tragedy is depressingly all too unsurprising," it said in a statement that added the government was "air-brushing" the Tibetan response from the picture.

It called for the world community to ensure reconstruction meets the "humanitarian needs of the Tibetan people, rather than the political ends of the Chinese Communist Party."

A government official denied Thursday the monks' contributions were ignored.

"I believe many people have seen this from media reports and I believe it is a good thing as it demonstrates the national unity of different ethnic groups and shows that Tibetans and Han Chinese are of one family," Pang Chenmin, vice head of rescue operations at the Civil Affairs Ministry, told journalists.

However, Woeser said Tibetan contacts told her monks and nuns who came to help were ordered from the quake region, scene of some of the 2008 anti-China rioting.

"I was told on April 20 that religious personnel were told to leave. The authorities said that they had already done too much and that if they stayed it could become troublesome," Woeser said.

Pang said he had no knowledge of any such order. However, since the earthquake, authorities have repeatedly advised well-meaning civilians not to flood into the disaster area, saying it could hinder official efforts

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