The 6.9 magnitude earthquake that ravaged eastern Tibet’s Kyegundo on April 14 has brought to sharp relief the region’s contentious place in China’s geopolitical fold, deepening the divide between the fractured township’s predominantly-Tibetan population and the Chinese government apparatuses.
Where government relief was slow in the coming, it was the Tibetan Buddhist monks from nearby regions who with bare hands dug out survivors from the rubbles and provided comfort to those who had lost families and friends. By the second and third day when Chinese soldiers and state workers had arrived and taken over rescue operations, elbowing out the monks lest their prominence in media spotlight was compromised, it was the monks who provided proper rites of passage for the thousands of dead, as would have befitted the Buddhist faith of their living incarnations. Xinhua, the government mouthpiece, puts the death toll at 1,400; local Tibetans contend it’s close to 10,000.
Kyegundo, which maps of China-controlled Tibet depicts as being in Qinghai, is traditionally in Kham province of Tibet. It was one of the three towns, besides Jhomda and Chamdo, through which in 1950 Chinese army invaded Tibet. Its inhabitants, like those from the larger province, famously reputed for their fierce warrior nature, engaged Chinese military in a protracted armed resistance that lasted into the early 1970s, more than a decade after China’s occupation of Tibet in 1959 which led to the exile of the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Started first as isolated underground offences that flared across Kham, the unified guerrilla resistance under “Chushi Gangdruk” of later years inflicted major losses on Chinese army; its members were responsible for securing the Tibetan leader’s unharmed flight to India. The fighting continued in exile from Mustang in Nepal with support from CIA, which was abruptly suspended in early 1970s, after Henry Kissinger’s secret Beijing visit signaled a repairing of U.S.-China relations. The betrayed Tibetan fighters, many of whom had been trained in Colorado, were forced to lay down arms only after the Dalai Lama personally intervened; many subsequently committed suicide, some by drowning, some by slitting their throats.
In 1965, Kham, as well as Amdo, the province in which the Dalai Lama was born, were incorporated into Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. The third Tibetan province of U-tsang was designated “Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR);” It is “TAR” which China refers to when they mention Tibet in present-day discourses.
Ninety percent of people who died in Kyegundo were Tibetans, whose poorly-built houses had been the first to collapse. Many of these tenement-style mud-and-timber hovels had come up beginning late nineties during the Chinese government’s vehement drive to resettle the locals who, like most Kham and Amdo people, were nomads and herdsmen, sustaining on open grasslands with their livestock. The Chinese coercion was designed to enforce control over a free-roaming people whose propensity to revolt was notorious; in part it owed to the government’s extensive dam-building, mining and deforestation enterprises. Their traditional way of life disrupted, finding their rehabilitation prospects dimmed by Chinese migrant workers, these displaced Tibetans put up numerous protests, but were largely left with little resources with which to cope.
In March 2008 when pro-independence uprising erupted in Lhasa, it swiftly spread to areas in Kham and Amdo; one such revolt in Kyegundo involved hundreds of young herdsmen on horsebacks laying siege on 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 taken into custody. There were signs of international outcry building up, until a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan in May, killing more than 70,000 people. Chinese government’s image as a bloody oppressor in Tibet was softened into a quick-acting, humanitarian front, which ostensibly impeded “Free Tibet” movement’s outrage over the Beijing Olympics.
After the April 14 earthquake in Kyegundo, for two full days, government rescue was absconding. It was the hundreds of monks from neighboring five or six unaffected monasteries who first rushed to aid, carrying blankets, tents and food supplies. Amid worries over bursting of a dam further up in the mountains, when soldiers and state workers finally arrived, they seemed to focus on government buildings, leading locals to believe they were being shortchanged for their ethnicity. Monks, who had by now in addition to their rescue efforts taken charge of caring for the dead, were discouraged. This shadow of Chinese insensitivity subsided when the government nervously afforded monks laxity: in the last couple of days, monks offered prayers as thousands of Tibetan corpses were thrown en-masse into raging funeral pyres. Traditionally, after their death, the bodies of Tibetans, particularly from this area, 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.
For those surviving, even on the fourth day, food and water was hard to come by. Malcolm Moore, a reporter for Telegraph, in his April 18 dispatch, quoted a Tibetan monk 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.” In a system woefully captive to connections, the first to receive help were those belonging to state-owned enterprises or work units, the majority of which comprise Chinese immigrant workers; the erstwhile Tibetan herdsmen and nomads who could boast of no such associations were left to fend for themselves.
To the larger population in China’s mainland, government propaganda peddles to them two polarizing images of Tibetans. One: as ungrateful rioters, as evident from the stock footage of angry Tibetan protestors from the 2008 Lhasa uprising which was repeatedly run on state television (while leaving out the scores of peaceful protests elsewhere, not to mention the brutal crackdown that followed). The other: that of grateful subjects, who are perennially shown smiling feverishly while returning handshakes of government officials, their clothes as new as the housing appliances surrounding them. A third image is now being beamed out to them in the quake’s aftermath, its censorship made impossible by the temptation to glorify the army’s humanitarian avatar: one of impoverished Tibetans whose destitution is as stark on the dead as it is on the living, a far cry from the government’s development claims.
The Chinese President Hu Jintao was gracious enough to visit the disaster site. 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. For the thousands of dead, their sole solace was the conferment of the customs of a religion which is otherwise banned in most parts of Tibet. As spoken by those who have survived, their souls nonetheless brutalized by losses, for them their best healing lies in their exiled leader who has not stepped foot in his country for more than last fifty years.
The Tibetan leader has expressed his desire to visit the disaster-stricken area to extend comfort. Most likely, the Chinese leadership will not make that happen. The problem however is that it will have further alienated a people who have little left to lose.
Topden Tsering is a Tibetan writer based in Berkeley.