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 the Buddhist monks who responded first 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 verbal orders the last two days to recall their monks. Amid hours of coverage for China's national day of mourning on Wednesday, no monks were visible in the official proceedings.
It was a jarring omission in light of their contributions to the weeklong rescue and relief effort following the quake, which killed 2,064 people and injured more than 12,000 others.
Tsebtrim, an ethnic Tibetan who works as a translator in Yushu, the county in Qinghai province hit hardest by the April 14 quake, was among thousands left homeless. He recalls heading to the local horse racing grounds shortly after the earthquake with hundreds of others who heard it would be a safe place if the local dam broke.
Set up tents, gave food
"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 or 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 during an interview from Yushu, where he is helping run an aid station.
Chinese military officials said this week 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 or frequently make pilgrimages to them, didn't have those problems.
They flooded into Yushu within hours, on motorbikes and packed in the back of trucks.
On Saturday, they held a cremation ceremony, preparing hundreds of bodies, praying and burning the corpses in a massive trench 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 as they delivered tents, water and food, and lifted injured people from cracks of crumbled buildings.
No monks on TV
Monks also live in the quake zone, though they were not shown in media coverage Wednesday.
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 re-education 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.
On Wednesday, a monk and a Tibetan activist in touch with people in the quake zone said monks from Ganzi in Sichuan and other surrounding areas had also been ordered to leave the earthquake zone.
Yixi Luoren, the head of Ganzi's Gengqing Monastery, said 150 of their monks went to Yushu but 120 had left by Wednesday on orders from the Religious Affairs Bureau and the Communist Party United Front department in Ganzi prefecture, where the monastery is located.
Strong Tibetan identity
A rugged, deeply Buddhist region filled with monasteries and nunneries, Ganzi is known for its strong Tibetan identity and has been at the center of dissent for years.
"They told us to do so on the phone," Yixi Luoren said. "The authorities didn't tell us the reason, but we assume they might have worried that there are too many people there and wanted us to come home safely."
Radio Free Asia on Wednesday quoted a Tibetan man in Yushu as saying monks held a candlelight vigil on April 19 that officials feared might take on political significance. The report said the man had asked not to be identified by name.
Woeser, a Beijing-based Tibetan poet and activist, said Han and Tibetan acquaintances in the quake zone told her similar orders were given to monks from several other monasteries. She said the monks were upset and not willing to go but had no choice.
"A clear reason for the order wasn't given but it was very strict," said Woeser, who also uses just one name. "Local officials told them through translators in Tibetan 'You've done everything already. You've done too much. You have to leave Yushu now, otherwise there will be trouble.'"
Woeser said local Tibetans were frustrated because they believe the monks are still needed to help dig out the dead and perform funeral rites.
"There is an opportunity here for the state finally to recognize the immense cultural resources that the monks can offer," said Barnett, the Columbia University professor. "But it will take great cultural sensitivity and compromise on both sides for that to be achieved."