The father paused and looked at the small stove in front of him, which was heating the room with burning stacks of yak dung.
The younger brother, in his early 20s and with plans to move to a bigger city, finished the sentence with an assertion that no one contradicted.
"The people lighting themselves on fire do it because they are suffering ... or because one of their family members has been killed by the government and they are now filled with hatred," he said. "They are doing these things because they want to express their pain and their hardship."
The majority of Tibetans approached in the area said they couldn't discuss such issues.
One herder near the town of Chali, about 30 miles east of Aba, gestured for a reporter to follow him to his house. Once inside, the 67-year-old man with tough, thick hands shook his head, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't dare talk about this."
Walking back out across a field, the herder in brown corduroy pants and a dark winter jacket had a piece of advice: Listen to what the monks have to say.
The monk with the dead relative had marched in a demonstration against the Chinese government during the tumult of March 2008. When the police later came, the monk said, they surrounded the monastery and threatened to destroy it if those who'd participated in the incident didn't turn themselves in.
Official documents describing his arrest said that he and others had taken part in an action that "disrupted public order" and caused a traffic jam. The monk keeps the papers tucked in a plastic bag even though they're written in Mandarin, a language he doesn't understand well.
The monk said he was held in jail and fed such small amounts of thin porridge that it became difficult to stand up. He was then transferred to a reform-through-labor camp. "They told me that the Dalai Lama group is an obstacle to our road to peace," said the monk, who was reluctant to describe the nearly two-year experience.
His relative never made it back — he died in custody, the result of being beaten in the head and then not receiving medical treatment, according to the monk and others at the monastery.
The monk returned to the area near Aba in 2010. Much was as he left it. Candles made of yak-butter still flicker in the night. Old men patiently twirl prayer wheels. Young monks with freshly shaven heads scamper up and down steep hillsides.
The monk found that one of his framed pictures of the Dalai Lama had survived in a hiding spot. The glass was cracked and missing a piece, but the rainbow-colored frame and the image itself were intact.
With the ongoing government searches and his record of jail time, having the photograph around could be hazardous for the monk.
He kept it anyway.
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