He was 91.
"Phuntso's son, Phunkham, told Reuters "He left this morning. 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."
The Dalai Lama was probably immediately informed of the death of his former translator.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on an interesting story about the Tibetan flag. It is reproduced below:
Reuters recently published a fascinating piece of information. Phuntso Wangye, a veteran Tibetan Party leader would have written a series of three letters to President Hu Jintao. Wangye is not an ordinary Tibetan; in the forties, he was the first Tibetan Communist and in September 1951, he led the Chinese troops into Lhasa.
In his letter Phunwang told Hu that Beijing was mistaken to believe that the Tibetan issue will be solved with the death of the present Dalai Lama: "Any notion of delaying the problem until after the 14th Dalai Lama dies a natural death is not only naive, it is also unwise and especially tactically wrong."
On the contrary, he warned the Chinese leadership who read his letters that the Tibetan leader’s demise would only radicalize young Tibetan hardliners frustrated with his ‘middle way’ approach.
He reminded the Chinese President about his own objective to establish a harmonious society. If he strived for the return of hundreds of thousands of exiled Tibetans, he could turn ‘confrontation into harmony’.
Phunwang concluded: "wrong leftist policies continue on ethnic and religious issues, especially in Tibet… it should cease.”
This reminded me of a talk that I had some 10 years ago with Phuntso Tashi Taklha who was the Kusum Depon, in charge of the Dalai Lama’s security when the Tibetan leader visited China in 1954. Taklha told me: “At that time [in 1954] because the Chinese occupation of Tibet was not complete, the Chinese extended full courtesy and cooperation to the Dalai Lama. On some occasions Mao Zedong came himself to the Dalai Lama’s residence [in Beijing]. During one of the several discussions that the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong had, they were talking on some subject, when Mao [suddenly] said: “Don’t you have a flag of your own, if you have one you can hoist it here”. Mao Zedong spoke like that. This I never told anybody before.”
I must admit that I did not immediately realize the importance of Mao’s point, but when I later read Phunwang’s biography, I understood better the incalculable implications of the Chairman’s statement.
It is worth quoting Phunwang: “One day, Mao unexpectedly came to visit the Dalai Lama at his residence… During their conversation, Mao suddenly said, "I heard that you have a national flag, do you? They do not want you to carry it, isn't that right?"
‘They’ were Zhang Jingwu, Zhang Guohua and Fan Ming, senior Chinese officials involved in Tibetan Affairs
Phunwang recalled: “Since Mao asked this with no warning that the topic was to be discussed, the Dalai Lama just replied, "We have an army flag." I thought that was a shrewd answer because it didn't say whether Tibet had a national flag. Mao perceived that the Dalai Lama was concerned by his question and immediately told him, "That is no problem. You may keep your national flag." Mao definitely said ‘national’ flag [tib. rgyal dar]. "In the future," he said, "we can also let Xinjiang have their own flag, and Inner Mongolia, too. Would it be okay to carry the national flag of the People's Republic of China in addition to that flag? Would that be all right?" The Dalai Lama nodded his head yes. This was the most important thing that Mao told the Dalai Lama, and I was amazed to hear it.
The Tibetan communist continued: “My mind was racing. I didn't know whether Mao had discussed this with other leaders in the Politburo or whether he mentioned it on his own. As I had always paid great attention to the Soviet Union's nationality model, I was excited because I took Mao's comment that Tibet could use its own flag to mean that China was contemplating adopting the Soviet Union's ‘Republic’ model, at least for these three large minority nationalities. That's why I thought it was something new and very important.”
This remark had a deep impact on Phuwang who one day of April 1958 was unexpectedly arrested; he was just informed that he needed to 'cleanse his thinking'. During the following 18 years, he was interrogated, tortured and jailed in the most atrocious conditions. He was finally rehabilitated at the end of the seventies.
After his rehabilitation, he continued to ponder on the isuues of nationalities within the People’s Republic of China. His personal belief was that the relationship between nationalities in a multiethnic state was supposed to be one of complete equality.
He thought: “from the Marxist standpoint, the struggle of minority nationalities against oppression by the majority nationality is correct and justified because there is no equality. In the absence of true equality, ‘splittism’ is a valid response for minority nationalities.” He had himself experienced for years of ‘Great Han Chauvinism’.
His contention was: “In socialist states, the majority nationality does not (or should not) oppress the minority nationalities. All should be equal, and there should be complete unity and cooperation among nationalities.”
This had a serious corollary for Tibet and other nationalities: the State had to guarantee the equality amongst nationalities (among other things, by not imposing Han language over ‘nationality language’ such Tibetan).
In the 80’s, when he elaborated on his theory, he again got into trouble. For several years, he was severely ‘criticized’ by leading members of the Party; Li Fatang, then Party Secretary in Tibet was one of them. Finally he managed to send a 25,000 character note to senior Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and Li Weihan (who had signed the 17-Point Agreement with Tibet). While stressing that the outcome of a debate on the question of nationality would have a huge impact on future work in ‘minority nationality areas’ such Tibet, he told bluntly the leaders: “there had been no comparable debate in the party on nationality affairs.”
While many in the Party wanted to show him the door, Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping instructed the officials not to remove him as a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. In a way, his stand was vindicated and in December 1982, he felt proud that the new Chinese Constitution stated: “Socialist relations of equality, unity, and mutual assistance have been established among the nationalities and will continue to be strengthened."
Slowly China became less rigid and in 1984, Zhao Ziyang told the Tibetan Party leaders: "Economic development is the work priority for the nation - including Tibet. Phunwang and the Panchen Lama are both our people and we are trying to win over the Dalai Lama. Therefore, it is wrong to make them objects of political attack."
Hu Yaobang, the Party boss agreed with Zhao: "Economic development is the priority of the whole nation… our country has had very hard times. If we do not pay attention to economic development in Tibet and improve the people's living conditions there, we will never achieve the kinds of political results we want."
He also said that it was wrong to single out three people (the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and Phunwang) and make them targets of political struggle.
The debate started by Mao’s remark more than fifty years ago and reignited by Phunwang twenty years back, is still on. Will Hu Jintao and his colleagues get Phunwang’s point on the issue of nationalities or will the Great Han Chauvinism prevail once again? Perhaps the fate of the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle path’ approach and his representative’s dialogue with the United Front Department depends on which side the wind will blow in Beijing?
But it is still not advisable to go around the Bakhor with a Tibetan flag: Mao’s Thought has not percolated as yet in Tibet.