Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, the Tibetan Communist Party founder who had called for Beijing to reconcile with exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, died on Sunday in the Chinese capital. He was 92.
The Dalai Lama issued a message expressing grief over the death of Wangyal, popularly known as Phunwang, who merged his party with China’s ruling Communist Party in 1949 but later became an outspoken critic of Beijing's hard-line policies toward Tibet.
Sources said traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayers were being held for Wangyal after he died at a Beijing hospital on Sunday morning.
"He passed away … around 7:10 a.m. local time in Beijing. He was 92 and had remained in a coma for about a month prior to his death today,” a Tibetan source in Beijing speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
Wangyal had been hospitalized since July and developed lung problems in recent months.
Born in 1922 in the Tibetan county of Batang, now part of China’s Sichuan province, Wangyal in the 1940s established the Tibetan Communist Party, which was at that time separate from the Chinese Communist Party and sought a united Tibet.
His party led a series of guerrilla uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule until 1949, when it joined forces with Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party.
Wangyal assisted Mao in early negotiations with the Dalai Lama but was incarcerated following an anti-rightist campaign in 1958, a year before the Dalai Lama fled to India.
He spent 18 years in prison before being rehabilitated in 1978 and afterwards remained in Beijing until his death.
'A trusted friend'
The Dalai Lama said Sunday he was “deeply saddened” by the passing of Wangyal, who had served as the official interpreter in the Dalai Lama’s talks with Mao and Zhou Enlai in 1954.
“A sincere, honest man, I enjoyed his company whenever we met. I had hoped we might yet meet again, but that was not to be.”
“He was a true communist, genuinely motivated to fulfill the interests of the Tibetan people. In his death we have lost a trusted friend.”
Wangyal had called for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet in a series of letters to China’s then-president Hu Jintao.
In a recent book he had said the Dalai Lama should be allowed to return because he would be a stabilizing force.
The Dalai Lama said in his message that Wangyal had “showed that you could be a true communist while at the same time proud of your Tibetan heritage.”
“Despite his firm upholding of communist ideals, the Chinese authorities regarded [Phuntsok] Wangyal's dedication to his Tibetan identity in a negative light, as a result of which he spent 18 years in prison,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.