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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the mountains of the Tibetan plateau, villagers killed in last week's massive earthquake were cremated this weekend. As of this morning, the quake is being blamed for nearly 2,000 deaths - with hundreds more still missing. The task of cremating the dead fell to Buddhist monks. And the monks performed their traditional role under the watchful gaze of the Chinese government. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report.

ANTHONY KUHN: Vultures are circling overhead. They see the bodies of the dead wrapped in blankets and placed in two trenches on a hillside overlooking the devastated town of Jiegu. Sometimes the dead are dismembered and fed to vultures in a traditional Tibetan sky burial.

But Tibetan Buddhists lamas, or monks, in charge of the ceremony estimate that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 bodies here, so they must be cremated.

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The lamas sit dressed in crimson robes, chanting sutras facing the flames. Jiegu's population is more than 90 percent Tibetan, so while the government has taken charge of the rescue efforts they defer to the cultural and spiritual authority of the lamas for the funeral matters.

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Living Buddha Dan Ba(ph) is a high ranking lama at the Dagu(ph) Monastery in charge of the funeral service. He says this fiery offering to the Buddha is something the monks must do and the government knows it.

Lama Dan Ba: (Through translator) The government must allow people to follow their religions, especially following this huge quake. The government has trusted and permitted us to handle and cremate the dead as it is in line with religious freedom and religious rules.

KUHN: In Tibet, Buddhist temples are centers of learning and science. Monks are the backbone of the regions civil society. But China's government is sometimes uncomfortable with and mistrustful of religious and civil groups. Sha Shi Ping(ph), a spokesman at the government's rescue command post, says both government and society have a role to play.

Mr. SHA SHI PING: (Through translator): The reason our rescue efforts have made such progress and been so effective is that the government has played the leading role. But citizens groups have also made a big contribution.

KUHN: Teams of monks with shovels and crowbars have joined soldiers and rescue teams digging through the rubble for survivors. But near the funeral pyre, Buddhist monk Ge Laidanzeng(ph) says that sometimes police have prevented the monks from rescuing the living or taking away the dead.

Mr. Ge Laidanzeng (Monk): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The police may suspect that we took away the bodies ourselves, he says, without the consent of their families.

Wan Li Xun(ph) is author of the book, "Sky Burial," one of the more critical looks at China's Tibet policies by a Chinese author. He says that the earthquake gives both officials and monks a chance to show goodwill to the local population.

Mr. WAN LI XUN (Author, "Sky Burial"): (Through translator) I believe that some officials see this as a competition between the government and religion for the people's hearts and minds. So while we hear a lot from society about the monk's great contributions, we read very little about it in the official media.

KUHN: Wong argues that official rescue efforts are often concentrated where they can best be seen by the media. State media reports inevitably focus on grateful locals thanking the government for rescuing them. It's the places where the media aren't looking that the rescue operations are sometimes weaker and the monks, by default, become the main rescue force.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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