Two years ago, the monks of Qinghai province were in the news in China for violent riots that tore through many of the ethnic Tibetan regions.
But this week, millions of Chinese were exposed to a strikingly different picture — newspapers and news broadcasts showed images of Tibetan monks, in their distinct red robes, heroically digging through debris and rescuing the survivors of last week's devastating quake.
Monks, in the past often characterised as political “trouble-makers” by the State-run media, were, ironically, filling in for the State in a remote region beyond its reach.
The role played by Tibetan monks in the quake's aftermath has become a subject of focus for the media in China and abroad, given the uneasy relationship between monasteries and the Chinese government, most evident during the riots of March 2008 in Tibet.
On Friday, the government said it had advised monks to leave quake-hit areas to allow reconstruction work to continue. It was, however, also careful to praise their efforts, and to stress that there was no politics behind its decision to ask monks to leave.
The State Council, or Cabinet, said it “fully recognised the contribution of monks who came to the disaster zone from other areas”.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, which left more than 2,000 people dead, monks from monasteries in the largely Tibetan-inhabited region played an important role in rescuing hundreds, if not thousands, from the debris, often digging into the rubble with their bare hands given the lack of advanced mechanical equipment.
The remote location of Yushu county, the epicentre, meant military personnel and rescue teams could not participate in rescue efforts for much of the first day.
According to some media reports from Yushu earlier this week, some monks had complained that they had been prevented from taking part in the rescue efforts once the military had taken over, and more effective high-tech equipment was brought in. Monks were also noticeably absent from the commemorative ceremonies held this past week that were broadcast in State-run media, leading some to suggest their efforts were being underplayed.
The government stressed on Friday its decisions were only driven by logistical requirements and were in no way political, as some reports in the Western media had suggested.
“Now it's the phase for epidemic prevention and reconstruction, and requires specialised personnel to start their work,” said the State Council in a statement.
“It would bring more difficulties to disaster relief work if lots of unprofessional personnel were at the scene.”