According to the New York Times‘s official sources and a statement from the State Council, Buddhist monks have been asked by the government to end their relief work in Yushu. Maybe. The same article also says that the governor of Yushu doesn’t know anything about it:
“We did not give or receive any orders of such kind,” the governor, Wang Yuhu, was quoted as saying. “Actually, we are very grateful for the role Tibetan monks played in the relief effort.”
Furthermore, the China Daily (official state media) is running a piece on their front page today about how crucial the monks are to the relief process:
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Tibetan Buddhist monks in crimson cloaks and jackets have joined the soldiers and rescue workers since the afternoon of April 14.
“A total of 900 monks from our temple alone have joined in the rescue and relief work. The first group arrived at epicenter at 4 pm, a few hours after the earthquake happened,” he said.
“We rescued more than 700 survivors, and helped find more than 1,000 bodies under the ruins.”
So what’s actually going on here? It seems probably the monks really have been asked to leave (I’ll believe an official State Council statement over a local governor any day), but why is still very much up for grabs. The New York Times posits a few theories:
[O]fficials disputed complaints from some monks that they were being expelled for political reasons, saying that better-trained workers were required for tasks like disease prevention and building reconstruction.
In a written response to questions from The Associated Press, the central government’s State Council Information Office expressed gratitude for the monks’ rescue efforts. But “it would bring more difficulties to disaster relief work if lots of unprofessional personnel were at the scene,” the statement added.
For days, the monks conducted their work with little or no interference from officials. But some complained this week that Chinese Army personnel and other government officials had begun to elbow them out of rescue and relief efforts. They said the government wanted to cast the rescue operations not as an indigenous effort, but as a generous gesture from the central government to the region’s ethnic Tibetan population.
Hmm. Well it certainly doesn’t seem like the government is trying to cast the rescue effort as something all their own when they’re running stories with passages like this in official state media:
A Sichuan-based Tibetan temple donated 11.27 million yuan to quake-hit Yushu county on Friday, including 10 million yuan from the temple’s Tibetan living Buddha, Tripa Rinpoch.
“We had planned to use the money to repair our temple, but now, it is our responsibility to donate it,” Tripa Rinpoch told China Daily.
“I see so many Han people and Tibetans carrying out the rescue and relief effort together, and I am deeply touched by them,” he said.
The Sershul Temple, located in Ganzi of neighboring Sichuan province and 110 kilometers far away from Yushu, had also provided relief supplies worth about 1.2 million yuan, including 200 tents, food and water.
Ngawang Kunkyap, a 19-year-old monk of Sershul Temple, didn’t realize his fingers were bleeding after hours of searching for survivors under ruins.
“I used my hands to dig into ruins, and I continued my work even though those underneath clearly had to be dead. Finding their bodies still would be a comfort for their family members,” he said.
Absurdity, Allegory, and China has a collection of some other Western reports that also paint the decision to remove the monks as a political one. And, as much as I love cynicism, doesn’t the government’s argument actually make a good deal of sense here? Monks were undoubtedly instrumental in the first few days, but now that the national and international community has had time to mobilize, it seems quite possible — likely, in fact — that monks are getting in the way of the professionals, if for no other reason than that their traditions are different.
For example, in the early aftermath of the quake, deaths were underreported in the media because the government rescuers didn’t know that the monks had already begun cremating bodies at their temples. That isn’t a huge problem, but extra confusion while trying to coordinate a massive search, rescue, and relief effort is understandably something the government wants to avoid. And anyone who has ever tried or get a large group of unskilled people to do something knows that it’s often easier to work with a much smaller crew of experienced people.
This is not to say the intentions of the monks are not good, or that they have not performed admirably. But they are not trained or, presumably, experienced at all in disaster relief, and many of the other rescue workers in Yushu are highly trained and experienced. Given that the government is running fluff pieces about how great they are as it’s asking them to leave, I think all the skepticism might be a bit premature. But what do you think? This is destined to be one of my more unpopular opinions, so get rippin’ on it in the comments.