Thursday, April 15, 2010

This Week in Tibet

The news of an earthquake in Tibet has been bouncing around for the last two days, although it seems to have largely slipped off the front page already. The 7.1 magnitude quake occurred in a sparsely populated prefecture (current population is roughly 300,000) alternately known, confusingly enough, as Yushu, Yushul, Gyegu, Jiegu, Jyekundo, and Kyigundo. It was historically part of the Kham region of Tibet, although today it's administered by Qinghai province, just outside the border of Chinese-designated Tibet province. This has led to confused foreign media labeling it a 'Tibetan border town,' even though it's hundreds of miles from the traditional Tibetan-Chinese border.

The destruction in Gyegu has been near absolute- some estimates say that 85% of the buildings in the town collapsed. A number of these were schools, which echoes the Wenchuan earthquake from 2008. Back then Chinese reporters uncovered a number of shady contracts which led to the construction of so-called ‘tofu schools,’ which collapsed immediately and totally. Presumably a possible repeat of this discovery is why China has already barred media outlets based outside Qinghai province from doing any on-the-ground reporting.

Meanwhile, the small town airport has spent much of the last two days inoperative, meaning that would-be rescuers have to drive in from provincial capital Xining. This drive takes 18 hours under the best circumstances, and with landslides, damaged roads and collapsed bridges in the way that drive will be much harder. The local hospital was destroyed, and residents have been cautious about entering any still-standing structures thanks to aftershocks that could reach 6 on the Richter scale. This has led to people sleeping outside in below-freezing conditions, and many wounded residents haven't even been able to get cleaned up in the 48 hours since the quake. As if all this wasn't enough, a large dam 12 miles upstream has sustained heavy structural damage, and engineers have warned that it could collapse at any time. Some people are reportedly moving up into the hills, above the potential waterline but also further away from disaster relief crews and medical help.

This disaster has brought together unlikely partnerships. A photographer captured a number of pictures of Tibetan monks and Chinese soldiers working side by side to excavate people buried in rubble:

More monks are coming from neighboring monasteries to assist with the relief efforts. More soldiers, too- both to help out, and to keep a close eye on the region in the coming days and weeks. Yushu Prefecture is 97% Tibetan, and Beijing is fully aware that grief could quickly turn to anger if locals find that Chinese contracts led to inferior construction once more. Politics are already at play, as Huffington Post writer Josh Schrei noted:
This is a region that does not look favorably on Chinese rule. It is a region that saw widespread independence protests in 2008, including the takeover of a Chinese police station by Tibetan protesters mounted on horseback. And the last thing the Chinese government wants is to bring any international attention to this restive area or give the local people any further reason to protest.

Public gatherings are banned in this part of Tibet, and from all on the ground reports it is already clear that the Chinese soldiers that have been trucked in Jyekundo are there to serve two purposes. They are there to help remove victims from the rubble, and they are also there to make sure that Tibetans -- homeless and freezing and distraught -- do not begin to demonstrate or make political statements. Wen Jiaobao, when outlining the plan for disaster relief yesterday, made sure to mention that efforts were being made to "safeguard social stability." In other disaster areas, this would translate as preventing looting and crime. In Jyekundo, it means preventing the locals from political agitation. As of yesterday, Tibetan monks and PLA soldiers were unified in their efforts to rescue schoolchildren from the quake's rubble; but more monks are on the way from neighboring monasteries, and the more days go by in which Tibetans are forced by circumstance to live in miserable conditions under the watchful eye of the PLA soldiers whom they already despise, it is highly likely Jyekundo will turn into a powder keg.
If anyone has a dollar or two they’re willing to part with, a few good organizations which already have resources in Gyegu/Jyekundo/Yushu are collecting donations specifically for disaster relief. I would recommend Machik, or The Bridge Fund.

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