(Adds Dalai Lama statement; paragraphs 6-9)
By Benjamin Kang Lim and David Stanway
BEIJING, March 30 Phuntso Wangye, a veteran
Tibetan Communist leader who became an outspoken critic of
Beijing's hardline policies towards the Himalayan region, died
on Sunday, his son said. He was 91.
"He left this morning," Phuntso's son, Phunkham, told
Reuters by telephone. "Before his death, he was a Communist
Party member. After his death, we have invited lamas to pray
(for his soul) according to traditional Tibetan culture."
Phuntso, who had been in hospital in Beijing since July, had
recently developed lung problems.
Born in 1922 in the Tibetan county of Batang, now part of
China's province of Sichuan, Phuntso founded the Tibetan
Communist Party and launched a series of guerrilla uprisings
against Nationalist Chinese rule until joining forces with the
Chinese Communist Party in 1949.
He led troops of China's People's Liberation Army into the
remote mountain region in 1951 and served as translator for
Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai during talks with the
Dalai Lama in 1954. Phuntso was later purged and spent 18 years
in solitary confinement before being rehabilitated in 1978.
Phuntso had showed that one "could be a true Communist"
while at the same time taking pride in his Tibetan heritage, the
Dalai Lama said in a statement on Sunday, adding that he was
deeply saddened by the news.
"Despite his firm upholding of Communist ideals, the Chinese
authorities regarded Phuntsog Wangyal's dedication to his
Tibetan identity in a negative light, as a result of which he
spent 18 years in prison," the Dalai Lama said.
"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."
Tibetans' names have numerous variations when spelt in
His biographer, Melvyn Goldstein, quoted Phuntso as saying
that while he experienced hardships "beyond description" during
his years at the notorious Qingchen Prison, they saved him from
an even worse fate during what he called China's "chaotic"
Later, Phuntso turned down the chance to be chairman of the
Tibet regional government, and became increasingly critical of
Beijing's position on Tibet and the Dalai Lama, who fled into
exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against
LETTERS TO THE PRESIDENT
Phuntso wrote several letters to then-President Hu Jintao
condemning leaders in Tibet for using a campaign against
"splittism" to serve their own political ambitions and for
refusing to acknowledge the Dalai Lama's role in Tibetan
He also urged Hu to let the Dalai Lama return home, saying
this would help make the region stable.
Phuntso's death "brings huge regrets", dissident Tibetan
writer Woeser told Reuters by telephone.
Phuntso continued to urge China's leaders, including
President Xi Jinping, to reconsider their stance on Tibet, she
said. "He had hoped the Chinese leadership could hold talks with
the Dalai Lama and let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet."
Phuntso's death silences one of the voices sympathetic to
the Dalai Lama" in the Communist Party, said Wang Lixiong,
author of several books on Tibet.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Richard Borsuk
and Clarence Fernandez)