By Benjamin Kang Lim and David Stanway
BEIJING (Reuters) - Phuntso Wangye, a veteran Tibetan Communist leader who became an outspoken critic of Beijing's hardline policies towards the Himalayan region, died on Sunday, his son said. 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 soul) 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 China's Sichuan province, Phuntso founded the Tibetan Communist Party and launched a series of guerrilla uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule until joining forces with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.
He led China's People's Liberation Army troops into the remote mountain region in 1951 and served as 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.
According to his biographer Melvyn Goldstein, Phuntso said while his years at the notorious Qingchen Prison brought hardships that were "beyond description", they let him escape an even worse fate during what he called China's "chaotic" Cultural Revolution.
Later, Phuntso turned down the opportunity 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.
LETTERS TO THE PRESIDENT
Phuntso wrote a series of letters to then-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 role played by the Dalai Lama in Tibetan society.
He also urged Hu to allow the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland, saying this would help make the region stable.
Dissident Tibetan writer Woeser, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said Phuntso's death "brings huge regrets".
She said Phuntso continued to urge Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, to reconsider China's 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, author of several books on Tibet, said that with Phuntso's death, "there will one fewer voice sympathetic towards the Dalai Lama" in the Communist Party.
(Editing by Richard Borsuk)