Understanding Phunwang

Understanding Phunwang

Bhuchung K. Tsering


This photo was posted on one of the Tibetan websites.
This photo was posted on one of the Tibetan websites.

On March 30, 2014 we saw the passing away of Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, a formidable figure in Tibetan history. This blog is about the reaction by the Tibetan community about him.

In December 2009, following the passing away of Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, I wrote,

“If we were to choose the three most prominent Tibetan personalities in Tibet in the post-1959 period, Kasur Ngapo would be one of them. The other two would be the previous Panchen Lama and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal. All three of them came in the same time in history but under different circumstances. Within the Tibetan society, at different times in history there have been different opinions about the three personalities.

“The Panchen Lama has, however, made it abundantly clear at all times that he has been striving for the benefit of the Tibetan people. In particular, his position, as spelled out in writing, includes his 70,000 character petition to the Chinese government on the plight of the Tibetan people and his public talks given in the 1980s. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal has also made his position clear through the book, “A Tibetan Revolutionary” as well as through his petitions to the Chinese government in recent times.”

For the past several days, I have been reading the reaction of the Tibetan people outside of Tibet, written in Tibetan as well as English. While the majority of them were positive about Phunwang’s legacy, there were some who were vociferously negative, including calling him a traitor.
How do we judge an individual whose background itself was part of the complex history of Tibet? Even the simple fact that Phunwang, although being a Tibetan, could only enter the territory governed by the then Tibetan Government in the 1950s after seeking its prior permission is part of this complexity.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has talked about his personal interaction with Phunwang, both while in Tibet and even after coming to India (via telephone conversations, which might be news to some) and has drawn a conclusion of his legacy; offering admiration at Phunwang’s dedication to the Tibetan people.

Irrespective of how one might interpret Phunwang’s initial involvement in the Tibetan-Chinese relationship, it is certainly true that from among the Tibetans in Tibet, after the former Panchen Lama, it was Phunwang who raised the strongest voice (until his death) for the Tibetan people with the Chinese leaders.

What do Tibetans in Tibet think about Phunwang?

It seems there have been lots of posting on Weibo by young Tibetans about Phunwang, many calling him a “witness to history.” There were also reports of mourning for him in Tibet.

I looked at some of the web portals from Tibet that is accessible to those of us outside. A posting in Tibetan on one website said,

“In short, Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal’s entire life was endowed with a thousand rays, making sincere and courageous efforts at all levels for the development and enrichment of his fatherland, the Land of Snow Mountains, transforming it into a modern Land of Snows while overcoming different challenges. It is a lesson that the latter generation needs to learn and understand.”

Another website, posted a poem that Phunwang had written, which said the following, among others:

“I lost freedom for the sake of freedom

Although devoid of freedom, (I) have freedom”

There was a posting on the website, www.tibetcul.com that had Phunwang’s biography and also had comments from readers, both positive as well as criticism, which were more general than specific.

A posting in the New Youth website said:

“There is no way history will forget you. Each of the footprints that you have left on the snow is a stone pillar left in the minds of the Tibetans.“

Tibetan writer Woeser’s shared her views on Phunwang to Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service in which she called him a “Lapchen ki Mina” (a personality with great stature) and said all his life he had worked for the interest of his people, sacrificing his personal interest.

She said the youth in Tibet had great respect for Phunwang, calling herself as being among those who were greatly inspired by his life.

Therefore, it may be that those of us living in freedom need to pause before passing judgment on Phunwang la based on our cursory understanding and try to see why our brethren in Tibet admire him.


One thought on “Understanding Phunwang

  1. On May 5th nearly five weeks after the death of Phuntso Wangye, his obituary appeared on the official website of the Chinese Communist Party. So far this obituary has not been reproduced in the Tibet Daily newspaper. Obviously the question of whether to recognize publicly Phuntso Wangye’s contributions has been a controversial matter within the CCP.

    I have translated the positions the obituary listed for Phuntso Wangye because to my knowledge there has been no previous such official list.

    December 1940 began participation in revolutionary work;
    August 1949 joined the CCP;

    . . . . . . thereafter (looks to be roughly chronological)

    an Assistant for Border Affairs in the West Yunnan liberated area;

    a (Party) Work Committee Secretary in the Xikang Tibetan border region;

    a member of the Southwest China Military & Political Affairs Committee;

    a member of the Southwest China Nationalities Affairs Committee;

    a member of the Tibet (Party) Work Committee;

    a Deputy Party Secretary of the Chamdo (Party) Work Committee;

    a Deputy Chairman of the Chamdo People’s Liberation Committee;

    a non-official delegate and political translator at the Tibet Peaceful Liberation negotiations;

    . . . . . . . beginning in 1953:

    a Deputy Bureau Chief in the Political/Legal Bureau of the Central Government’s Nationality Affairs Commission and simultaneously a Deputy

    Editor of the Nationalities Publishing House in Beijing;

    a national delegate to the 2nd China New Democracy Youth League Assembly in Beijing (predecessor to the Communist Youth League set up in 1957);

    a delegate to the 1st National People’s Congress in Beijing;

    The Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet: (1) a member, and (2) one of several Deputy Secretary Generals and a Party Secretary (possibly for Tibetan Party members) in the PCART Office’s Party cell;

    a Deputy Party Secretary in the United Front Department under the Tibet (Party) Work Committee;

    a Deputy Office Chief in the Tibet CPPCC Preparatory Office;

    a Deputy Head of the Nationalities Research Institute in the National Academy of Sciences;

    . . . . . . . . beginning in 1960:

    mistakenly sent to prison and mistakenly investigated for 18 years;

    . . . . . . . . after 1980:

    as delegate to the 5th National People’s Congress was appointed a Deputy Party Secretary on its Nationalities (now ‘Ethnic’) Committee;

    as a delegate to the 5th, 6th and 7th National People’s Congresses, was made a Standing Committee member and each term was named as a Deputy
    Director of its Nationalities (now ‘Ethnic’) Committee;

    an advisor to the work of the Nationalities (now ‘Ethic’) Committee of the 8th National People’s Congress;

    retired in November 1999.

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