HONG KONG—As China declared a day of mourning for the more than 2,000 people killed in an earthquake in western Qinghai province, authorities told monks from neighboring areas who played a critical role in rescue and recovery operations to go home, regional sources said.
Several sources who asked not to be named also said businesses and individuals in Tibetan areas had been stopped from delivering supplies to the quake-stricken region.
Officials on Tuesday reported the death toll had risen to 2,064, with more than 12,000 injured and 175 missing. China says the quake was 7.1 magnitude. Relief and reconstruction work has accelerated, with power and telecommunications services largely restored and aid convoys arriving.
“Local authorities issued an order today calling on all monks to return to their respective monasteries, as now they are no longer needed,” one Tibetan man said, adding that monks had held a candlelight vigil April 19 that officials feared might take on political significance.
“Residents here see this as a major setback to the relief effort if the monks have to leave,” he said.
Some 10,000 monks and 10,000 troops had been working to pull bodies from the wreckage and rubble, he said.
A senior lama in Gyegu [in Chinese, Jiegu] town, along with others, confirmed this account.
“Starting today, all outside monks have been thrown out [of the quake zones]. They are not allowed to join the rescue effort. The notice came out today, issued by the government. Some monks will leave tomorrow,” he said in an interview. Some monks are refusing to go, he added.
Another local Tibetan said a number of monks from Sichuan province had been asked to leave Monday, as more troops were trucked in—in two convoys of 15 vehicles each—and more roadblocks were set up along the route to the quake-stricken area.
Woeser, a well-known Tibetan writer and blogger living in Beijing, touched on the political sensitivity of the situation, two years after Tibetan frustration at living under Chinese rule turned into a widespread uprising, followed by a major crackdown.
“The Tibetan monks were told to return to their monasteries or face trouble later. As a result, many monasteries have to urge their monks to abandon the rescue work and come back home,” Woeser said in an interview.
Bad weatherA foreign reporter in the area, along with a Tibetan volunteer, meanwhile said bad weather and difficult terrain were hindering rescue efforts.
“In the Gyegu area, rain and snow are quite common. Sometimes there’s hail. The weather is so unpredictable,” the reporter said. “It’s hard to breathe because of the altitude.”
A volunteer named Wang Jun said a sudden ice storm on Tuesday around noon further slowed relief workers.
“The snow suddenly fell for about 10 minutes. Now the weather is fine, but if the snow comes again, I think we will need to stop our rescue work,” Wang said, referring to his team of 40 volunteers.
A Tibetan volunteer said that the weather was especially bad and that many residents believe the death toll is far higher than the government’s tally of just over 2,000.
“We had a big snowfall yesterday and today,” the volunteer said. “There’s white stuff everywhere.”
A Tibetan named Tenzin said figures released by the government are likely to be far lower than the actual number of dead.
“The government is always conservative in publicizing death tolls. But one of my friends told me that at least 2,000 bodies were cremated a few days ago. Some even speculated that the death toll could be 8,000 or 9,000,” he said.
“Some numbers were tallied by monks who performed prayer services for the victims. But it’s difficult to tally the bodies that have already been cremated.”
Anger over official controls
Chinese officials are trying to give the impression they have the situation under control, according to residents of Gyegu, but in many cases they have slowed or disrupted relief efforts.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the area Sunday in a bid to boost morale, but residents say Tibetans responded coolly.
“Many of the Tibetan residents expressed their dislike for President Hu by not reciprocating Hu’s handshake,” said a local Tibetan by telephone.
“Also, a monk shouted at Hu in Chinese, ‘You visit as if you were the leader of thugs, not to show your genuine love for the people. We do not have enough aid,’” he said.
The caller said that during Hu’s visit, tight security caused traffic in the area to stop completely, delaying the treatment of many of the injured and even leading to some deaths.
“When President Hu visited the site, he didn't come to meet the monks at all, even though they are at the forefront the relief work,” he added.
Others said Chinese authorities have been restricting the flow of aid into the area and forcing donations to be distributed through official channels.
“A score of Tibetan businessmen in Kham Driru raised 1 million yuan (U.S. $146,000), as well as many trucks of aid supplies. But the local Chinese authorities stopped them from delivering the aid,” said a source in the region.
“They were told that the aid should be delivered only through official channels and that no organizations or individuals are allowed to deliver it to the affected regions themselves.”
Similarly, monks from the neighboring Sog Monastery in Nagchu were ordered to hand over their raised donations and aid supplies to Sog county officials, according to exile Tibetan Ngawang Tharpa, who cited a source in Tibet.
Tibetan monks from the Sera Monastery in Lhasa hauling donations to Yushu were also turned away.
“They drove a truckload of food to the disaster area. But I heard that the government doesn’t want monks from other Tibetan areas to come to Yushu to join the rescue operation,” a Tibetan volunteer said.
Original reporting by Rigdhen Dolma, Tseten Dolkar, and Lobsang Sherab for RFA's Tibetan service; by Hai Lan and Lin Qin for RFA’s Cantonese service; and by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translations by Shiny Li from Cantonese, Jia Yuan from Mandarin, and Dorjee Damdul and Rigdhen Dolma from Tibetan. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han and Joshua Lipes.