Phuntso Wangye, a veteran Tibetan Communist leader who became an outspoken critic of Beijing's hard-line policies towards the autonomous region, died yesterday morning after an extended illness. He was 91.
"He left this morning," Phuntso's son, Phunkham, told Reuters by phone. "Before his death, he was a Communist Party member. After his death, we have invited lamas to pray [for his him] according to traditional Tibetan culture."
Phuntso, who was in a Beijing hospital since July, recently developed lung problems.
Born in 1922 in the Tibetan county of Batang, now part of Sichuan , Phuntso founded the Tibetan Communist Party and launched a series of guerrilla uprisings against Nationalist rule until joining forces with the Communist Party in 1949.
He led People's Liberation Army troops into the remote mountain region in 1951 and served as a 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.
While his years at the notorious Qingchen Prison brought hardships that were "beyond description", Phuntso said they let him escape an even worse fate during the political chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution, according to the Tibetan leader's biographer Melvyn Goldstein.
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 communist rule.
Phuntso wrote a series of letters to former president Hu Jintao condemning local leaders for using the campaign against "splittism" in Tibet to serve their own political ambitions and for refusing to acknowledge the Dalai Lama's role in Tibetan society. He urged Hu to allow the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland.
Dissident Tibetan writer Woeser said Phuntso's death "brings huge regrets". She said Phuntso continued to urge President Xi Jinping and other party leaders to reconsider their stance towards 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 , an author of several books on Tibet, said that Phuntso's death meant "there will be one fewer voice sympathetic to the Dalai Lama" in the Communist Party.