Phuntsok Wangyal, a veteran Tibetan Communist leader who became an outspoken critic of Beijing’s hardline policies toward the Himalayan region, died yesterday, his son said. He was 91.
“He left this morning,” Phuntsok’s son, Phunkham, said by telephone. “Before his death, he was a [Chinese] Communist Party [CCP] member. After his death, we have invited lamas to pray [for his soul] according to traditional Tibetan culture.”
Born in 1922 in the Tibetan county of Batang, now part of China’s Sichuan Province, Phuntsok founded the Tibetan Communist Party and launched a series of guerrilla uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule until joining forces with the CCP in 1949.
He led China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the remote mountain region in 1951 and served as translator for Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Zhou Enlai (周恩來) during talks with the Dalai Lama in 1954. Phuntsok was later purged and spent 18 years in solitary confinement before being rehabilitated in 1978.
According to biographer Melvyn Goldstein, Phuntsok said while his years at Qingchen Prison brought hardships that were “beyond description,” they let him escape an even worse fate during what he called China’s “chaotic” Cultural Revolution.
Later, Phuntsok turned down the opportunity to be chairman of the Tibet regional government and became increasingly critical of Beijing’s position on Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
Phuntsok wrote a series of letters to then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) condemning local leaders for using the campaign against so-called “splittism” in Tibet to serve their own political ambitions and for refusing to acknowledge the role played by the Dalai Lama in Tibetan society.
He also urged Hu to allow the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland, saying this would help make the region stable.
Dissident Tibetan writer Woeser, speaking by telephone, said Phuntsok’s death “brings huge regrets.”
She said Phuntsok continued to urge Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping (習近平), to reconsider China’s stance toward Tibet.
“He had hoped the Chinese leadership could hold talks with the Dalai Lama and let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet,” she said.
Wang Lixiong (王力雄), writer of several books on Tibet, said that with Phuntsok’s death, “there will one fewer voice sympathetic toward the Dalai Lama” in China’s Communist Party.