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 (USD 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.