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Tibetan revolutionary reminds us complexity of human choices

Phuntso Wangye, a longtime Tibetan communist who was part of the annexation of Tibet by the Chinese communist government last century, died 10 days ago at age 91. With a lifelong participation in the Chinese government and having been imprisoned for 18 years for speaking out on behalf of minority rights, Phuntso called at the end of his life for speedy reconciliation with the exiled Dalai Lama.

Phuntso's position as a veteran of the Chinese Communist Party regime is concomitant with his identity as a Tibetan. The uniqueness of this nexus of backgrounds provides a fresh look at the debate over the Tibet question. He called for protecting Tibetan rights within the framework of China. That position is consistent with the Dalai Lama's current position. Regardless of whether one supports complete political independence for minority regions in China, the goal of defusing ethnic tensions — which bubbled into full-blown violence as recently as 2008 — is a wise one.

In the latest of three letters to former Chinese President Hu Jintao, Phuntso observed that there are no substantive differences between the Dalai Lama and the mainland regime on the overarching question of whether Tibet belongs to China. Instead, he expressed his frustration at seeing lesser “administrative” issues prevent progress on talks. The Dalai Lama's invocation that “(we) stand for autonomy and definitely not independence, (we) stand for peace and definitely not violence,” was used by Phuntso as an appeal on the Dalai Lama's behalf in the letter.

“While things superficially look harmonious in China, there are actually numerous points of conflict between the Han and Tibetans (as well as other minority nationalities),” Phuntso wrote in the epilogue for his biography, titled “A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phuntso Wangye” by Melvyn C. Goldstein.

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