I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing away of Baba Phuntsog Wangyal in Beijing. He was a true Communist, genuinely motivated to fulfill the interests of the Tibetan people. In his death we have lost a trusted friend.
I first met Phunwang, as he was popularly known, in 1951, when he accompanied Chinese officials to Lhasa. Later, during my visit to Beijing and other cities in 1954-55 he assisted and interpreted for me in the course of which we became good friends. During the series of meetings I had with Chairman Mao in particular, he was of crucial help as my interpreter. He was well-versed in Marxist thought and much of what I know of that I learned from him. He was one of those Tibetans aware of the drawbacks of the prevailing social and political system in Tibet, who was inspired by Communism to bring about change.
Through his own example Phunwang showed that you could be a true Communist while at the same time proud of your Tibetan heritage. He caught me by surprise, when, at our first meeting, in the company of the Chinese delegation, he chose to make prostrations before me. At the same time, while the Chinese officials were all dressed uniformly in their regulation Mao suits, he wore a traditional Tibetan chuba. When I asked him about this he told me it would be a mistake to think that the Communist Revolution was primarily concerned with how to dress. He said it was more about a revolution of ideas, indicating to me that he did not think that being a Communist meant a Tibetan needed to dismiss Tibetan traditions.
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. 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.
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.
I pray that Phuntsog Wangyal may have a good rebirth and offer my condolences to his wife and children.
March 30, 2014