‘He showed that you could be a true Communist while at the same time being proud of your Tibetan heritage’

Phuntso Wangye, also known as ‘Phunwang’, a once influential former Tibetan Communist leader who later emerged as an unlikely — and outspoken — critic of Chinese rule in Tibet from within the establishment, died on Sunday. He was 92

The Dalai Lama said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of his passing.

“He was a true Communist, genuinely motivated to fulfil the interests of the Tibetan people. In his death we have lost a trusted friend,” the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said in a statement.

Phunwang, born in 1922 in what was then Kham in eastern Tibet — today’s Sichuan province — founded the Tibetan Communist Party. He later allied with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC) after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949 in the wake of the Chinese civil war.

When the People’s Liberation Army occupied Tibet in 1951, Phunwang became a key interlocutor in talks that later produced the controversial 17 point agreement. He served as a translator for the Tibetan delegation in Beijing. He also interpreted for the Dalai Lama during his 1954 meetings with Mao and then Premier Zhou Enlai.

Despite his Communist leanings, Phunwang was later persecuted by Mao’s CPC and jailed for 18 years. He was released following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and rehabilitated in 1978.

“He was well-versed in Marxist thought and much of what I know of that I learned from him,” the Dalai Lama said. “He was one of those Tibetans aware of the drawbacks of the prevailing social and political system in Tibet, who was inspired by Communism to bring about change”.

The Dalai Lama recalled that he was surprised when Phunwang “chose to make prostrations” before the Tibetan spiritual leader during the 1954 talks.

“He remained undaunted and even after his retirement continued to be concerned about the rights and welfare of the Tibetan people, something he raised with the Chinese leadership whenever he had the opportunity,” the Dalai Lama said.

Phunwang, in his retirement years, became critical of the CPC’s policies in Tibet and even penned letters to former President Hu Jintao calling for a rethink in policies. His criticism intensified following the 2008 riots.

Earlier this month, it emerged that Phunwang had penned an autobiography in which he called on China to compromise with the Dalai Lama and to “allow the hundreds of thousands of exiled Tibetan compatriots headed by the Dalai Lama to return home, live and work in peace”.

“Through his own example Phunwang showed that you could be a true Communist while at the same time proud of your Tibetan heritage”, the Dalai Lama said.

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