GANNAN PREFECTURE, China – Soon after Sangay Gyatso lit himself on fire and burned to death in one of China's ethnic Tibetan areas, police came knocking on his family's door with questions — and seemingly the answers as well.
Was the fiery suicide of the 27-year-old farmer pre-arranged? Didn't he have connections to foreign-based separatists? Didn't the family get a 3 million yuan ($500,000) reward for the self-burning protest?
A cousin of Sangay Gyatso said his family was asked these questions before the government cast the father of two as an incorrigible thief and womanizer who was goaded into setting himself on fire in an elaborate and cruel scheme to fan up ethnic hatred. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.
"It was all nonsense," the cousin, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, said during an interview conducted in his room at a Gannan prefecture community in the rolling hills along the incline toward the Tibetan Plateau. He sat near a stove used for both cooking and heat. A portrait of the Dalai Lama hung from a molding near a window.
In a rare interview conducted in this ethnic Tibetan region, the cousin told The Associated Press the man burned himself Oct. 6, 2012, at a white stupa near his Gannan village, in a personal protest over the lack of rights for Tibetans. He said Sangay Gyatso was not connected to Tibetan groups abroad.
"There are a lot of lies around Sangay Gyatso and around the people who have self-immolated," he said.
Since early 2009, overseas Tibetan rights groups have reported that more than 120 Tibetans — monks and lay people, men and women, and young and elderly — have set themselves on fire. Most died. The groups say the self-immolations are homegrown protests over China's heavy-handed rule in the Himalayan regions.
They are an image problem for Beijing, which first tried to blank out news of self-immolations. After reports continued to leak out, Beijing struck back with accounts of immolators as outcasts who fall prey to the instigation of the Dalai Lama and supporters who allegedly want to split Tibet from China. The Communist Party-controlled media describe the immolators as gamblers, thieves, womanizers, or suffering from life setbacks or physical disabilities.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who fled to northern India in 1959, has denied any role in the suicides, deplored the loss of lives and demanded that Beijing investigate under the watch of international monitors. He also says he wants autonomous rule, not independence, for Tibet.
Independent reporting in the region is almost impossible because of Beijing's tight controls. Though foreign journalists can travel to Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, police closely followed a group of Associated Press reporters on a recent trip, preventing them from interviewing most local Tibetans.
Sangay Gyatso's full story remains elusive because his immediate family members remain hushed. His cousin and people who live nearby advised the AP against traveling to Sangay Gyatso's village, saying government informants prevent the family from speaking out.
Gannan sits on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau but outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. It includes Tibetan Buddhism's holiest place outside Tibet, the Labrang Monastery in the town of Xiahe. Tibetans make up just over half Gannan's population of nearly 700,000, herding sheep and yaks against a mountain backdrop.
On a recent morning in Xiahe, prayer wheels spun and believers threw their bodies to the ground to offer prayers. Monks in maroon robes and herdsmen in fur coats mingled in the streets. Foreign and Chinese tourists browsed colorful scarfs in shops.
In some shops, Dalai Lama portraits were displayed in inconspicuous corners. An elderly shopkeeper said such displays were once strictly banned, but the rule was relaxed this year because it had irked ethnic Tibetans. Before he could say more, a civilian police employee following the AP crew told him to stop talking. Other residents looked nervous when approached and declined to speak.
Sangay Gyatso's cousin described him as "a very normal young Tibetan farmer with a very normal life."
Choe Gyamtso, a monk from Sangay Gyatso's village, defended him in an interview with India-based broadcaster Voice of Tibet. He said Sangay Gyatso was a decent man and that the account of him as a thief and womanizer was a lie.
He also said the Chinese government offered a 1 million yuan reward to Sangay Gyatso's family in exchange for their saying that the man self-immolated over disputes with his wife. He said the family turned down the money.
The cousin could not confirm the government offer, but said local officials had alleged that the family had accepted 3 million yuan from India for the man's self-burning act, which he denied. Officials never made such a claim publicly.
Pressure also came down on monks at the local Dokar Monastery, where Sangay Gyatson self-immolated.
Gannan police said late last year that they detained seven people, including three from the monastery, for their roles in Sangay Gyasto's death, characterized as premeditated homicide. Police said the monks knew about the suicide plan in advance, took photos of the self-immolation and sent them overseas to incite ethnic hatred. It's unclear whether anyone was tried.
For decades, Tibetans have complained of the lack of autonomous rule that was promised by the Communist Party since China's takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, and human rights activists say China has trampled on religious freedom and culture. China says Tibet has belonged to it since ancient times, and that since asserting control in the '50s it has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
In 2008, discontent and ethnic hatred erupted into violent riots across Tibetan regions, including Gannan.
Sangay Gyatso's cousin said local Tibetans are upset over an influx of China's majority Han people, who often get government jobs while Tibetan youth remain unemployed. "We have become a pitiable people that are nobody," he said.
The cousin recalled Sangay Gyatso becoming agitated over what he considered a lack of rights for Tibetans.
"He said he was not capable of doing big things, but said as an individual he could burn himself," the cousin said.
The shocked cousin tried to talk him out of it, but Sangay Gyatso assured him at the time that he was only joking.
After Sangay Gyatso died, his cousin said, "I thought of his words. Oh, he was preparing to do it. ... My heart ached, and I cried."