|Phunwang (2nd from left) with Basu (2nd from right) in India|
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What is interesting to note is that Bapa Phunwang Wangye was a Communist during his entire life, but remained a Tibetan (and a Buddhist) in his heart and till the time of his death. His last wish is to follow the traditional practices. It does not bode well for the Party to ‘liberate’ the population of the Land of Snows as the people hold on to their Tibetan-nessThe Life and Time of Bapa Phunwang Wangye
On March 29 early in the morning, Reuters announced the death of Bapa Phuntso Wangye (also known as Phunwang). The veteran Tibetan Communist leader, who often dared to criticize Beijing's hard-line policies towards the ‘regional nationalities’, was 91.
His son, Phunkham told the agency “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."
Though Phunwang was the founder of the Tibetan Communist Party, he became a good friend of the Dalai Lama in the mid-1950s.
His biography, “A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phunwang Wangye” by the American scholar Melvyn Goldstein makes fascinating reading. It recounts the remarkable life of the young Communist who participated in the so-called ‘liberation’ of Tibet.
Phunwang was born into a middle-class farmer family in the small town of Batang (‘Bapa’ means ‘from Batang’ in Tibetan) in the Kham province of Eastern Tibet. At that time, Batang was ruled by Liu Wenhui, a Chinese warlord from Sichuan.
The unusual thing about Batang was the missionary school; local children could learn Tibetan, Chinese and a few words of English. It was quite a rarity in Tibet in those days. At the age of 7, Phunwang joined the school; he was a bright student, always keen to learn.
A significant incident marked his school days. A friend of his father, Kesang Tsering, an official of the Guomintang regime tried to overthrow Liu Wenhui to establish a self-ruled Kham province. The attempt badly failed but it brought Phunwang into contact with a new social philosophy, ‘Three People's Principles’ of Sun Yatsen.
Later, Phunwang thought to become a pilot. He and a friend decided to seek the recommendation of the Governor of Hunan province to join the Air Force school. Without any money, the duo boarded a train to Changsha, the province’s capital; the two penniless students roamed like beggars in the streets in search for food. Passing in front of a restaurant where rich people were dining, Phunwang had an experience which would influence his entire life: he was confronted with the deep contrast between the rich eating and living well and the famished poor sleeping in the street. They did not get admitted into the Air Force, but Phunwang decided to start studying Marx, Hegel and Lenin. His readings convinced him to start the first association of Tibetan students in Nanjing which led to his expulsion from the Institute a few months later.
He spent the next couple of years in Chongqing with an uncle. He deepened his studies of Communist theory and repeatedly contacted the Soviet Embassy and the CCP without any success. His dream was to organize a revolutionary movement in Eastern Tibet.
During the following years, he managed to meet several ‘progressive leaders’ in Kham where he attempted to organize a movement to unify the different parts of Eastern Tibet. His objective was to establish a society where all citizens would be equal. One of the main obstacles was the ‘Great Han Chauvinism’ of Chiang’s regime. With the passing months, his activities began to be known to the Guomintang authorities and he had no alternative but to take refuge in Central Tibet.
Once in Lhasa, he spoke to several aristocrats and influential people of his vision of a new Tibet and the necessity to overthrow the Nationalist warlord of Sichuan: “The key of Tibet’s future was major reform of her political system — a change that at the very least would get rid of the abuses and inequalities of the current system,” he told his biographer.
He tried to enroll young educated Tibetans who ‘wanted a change’ and started an association called Tibetan People’s Unified Alliance. At that time, he was careful not to say anything about his Communist links.
In 1944, Phunwang decided to visit India and contact the CPI; he wanted the support of the Indian Communists. As he arrived in Calcutta, he met one Comrade Basu (not Jyoti), the then Party boss in Bengal. Phunwang requested the Indian Communists to help him to go Moscow (via Kashmir and Xinjiang) or to support some guerilla warfare in Kham against the Nationalist regime. He was finally told that ‘the time had not come’ to carry out such a movement.
He returned to Lhasa in 1945, but was now labeled as a Communist and all the doors shut on him. He returned to Eastern Tibet to try once more to organize a rebellion and then again to Lhasa from where he was expelled in July 1949 along with all the Chinese living in the Tibetan capital. He was accompanied to the Indian border and eventually flew back to China.
Soon after, the tide changed in China; one province after another fell under Communist control and on October 1, Mao declared the People’s Republic of China. Phunwang decided to found the Chinese Communist Party of Kham and the Tibetan Border Area affiliated to the CCP.
In May 1951, he was instrumental in brokering a deal (known as the 17-Point Agreement) between the ‘local’ government of Tibet and the ‘central’ government in Beijing.
A few months later, when the PLA entered the Tibetan capital, Phunwang rode with 2 Chinese generals in front of the troops. Between 1951 and 1954, he worked hard to make the Tibetan government accept the fait accompli: Tibet was a Communist province of China.
Though he became very close to the central leadership in Beijing, particularly Mao, he soon discovered that some Chinese officials suffered from the same disease as the Nationalists: The Great Han Chauvinism. This disturbed him a great deal.
When the Dalai Lama visited China for a few months (in 1954/1955), Mao ordered Phunwang to accompany the Tibetan leader everywhere. During his long talks with the young Dalai Lama, Phunwang somehow convinced him of his sincerity and love for Tibet and that a dose of ‘Communism’ was a good thing for Tibet.
Phunwang continued to work for the CCP as the main advisor for Tibetan affairs during the next four years. His dream to see a modern and socialist Tibet in his life time seemed to be coming true when one day in April 1958, he was unexpectedly arrested and told that he needed to ‘cleanse his thinking’.
During the following 18 years, he was interrogated, tortured and jailed in the most atrocious conditions. The horror of these years cannot be described. He was accused of being a ‘local nationalist’.
During his 18 years in jail (including 9 more years in solitary confinement), he did not receive a single visitor nor was he informed about from his wife and children. The only way to not lose his mental balance was to study. As he was allowed Communist literature only, he took the opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the Marxist theory and became a great expert on the subject of ‘nationalities’ within the PRC.
He was finally rehabilitated at the end of the seventies when Deng Xiaoping took over China.
What is interesting to note is that he was a Communist during his entire life, but remained a Tibetan (and a Buddhist) in his heart and at the time of his death; his last wish is to follow the traditional practices.
It does not bode well for the Party which has been tried for more than 60 years, to ‘liberate’ the population of the Land of Snows as the people hold on to their Tibetan-ness.