OBITUARY: ROBERT FORD (1923-2013)

OBITUARY: ROBERT FORD (1923-2013)

By Tenzin Zega (UK)

The only Inji to serve as an employee of an independent Tibetan government, we Tibetans owe an immense sense of gratitude to Robert Ford (or “Phodo” as he was called in Tibet) who died on Friday morning, the 20th of September, at the age of 90.

He was of course the famous radio operator in Chamdo responsible for connecting the town to the capital, Lhasa. But Ford was much more than that. Ford loved the Tibetan people and wanted to help the country with his skills. He forged strong friendships with progressive Tibetan minds like Jigme Taring and Dzasa Tsarong to usher Tibet into 20th century. The Tibetan Government wanted him to set up a radio network throughout Tibet.

Indeed, had his advice been heeded about installing a forward radio post closer to the border at Riwoche, it is possible that Chamdo would not have fallen so quickly. One only wishes it was the more open Lhalu, rather than Ngaboe who had to face the invading Chinese as Governor General of Kham, because Lhalu and Ford had a more open working relationship. Ngaboe, on the other hand, according to Ford, was distant and formal. As a Tibetan, one can only feel ashamed by the way Ford was abandoned by Ngaboe at Chamdo to the advancing Chinese army.

Sir Robert Ford with His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Sir Robert Ford with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Photo: ICT)

A grammar school boy brought up in Burton-on-Trent in England, Ford worked as a radio technician during World War II and in 1945 joined the British Mission in Lhasa as a radio operator, having his first audience with a 11 year old Kundun. Thanks to India gaining independence, Ford returned to Tibet in 1947 to be employed by the Tibetan Government.

Like the other injis in Tibet at the same time, such as Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, Ford was lured by the ‘mystique and adventure’ of Tibet – although he did introduce the tango to Lhasa! These injis – although from very different backgrounds – were united in their love for the land and the people and had a common desire to modernise Tibet whilst retaining her unique culture. Indeed, while receiving the Light of Truth Award from the Dalai Lama in April 2013, Ford said that his time in Tibet had been “the happiest years” of his life.

Newspapers at the time described him as “the loneliest Briton in the world”. Of course, Ford disputed that, saying he was having the “adventure” of his life – until, of course, China’s invasion. Unlike other Injis who socialised with the upper echelons of Tibetan society (mainly in the capital), Ford’s posting in Chamdo meant that he mingled with ordinary Tibetans and could keenly observe their customs and manners.

He was a true friend of Tibet who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tibetan people in their hour of need. Although Ford was offered the chance to leave for England before the 1950 Chinese invasion, he stayed – out of loyalty to Tibet – a decision which subsequently cost him nearly five years in jail in China. He suffered repeated interrogation and thought reform, living in constant fear of death, until his release and expulsion in 1955. He had been accused of being a spy for the British and causing the death of a pro-Chinese Tibetan Lama. His imprisonment would have perhaps been reduced had he revealed his ‘suspicions’ about the real perpetrator but Ford – true to his character – endured the suffering rather than betray a Tibetan. Unsurprisingly, he has taken the secret to his grave.

He wrote about this experience in “Captured in Tibet” published in 1957 (and republished in the USA in 1990).

After the Tibet phase of his life, Ford served as a diplomat in various posts around the world ending his career as Consul–General in Geneva, Switzerland before retiring in 1983. In 1982 he had been awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). During his retirement he resumed his active campaign for Tibetan freedom: Ford was visibly moved when the Tibetan community in the UK celebrated his 90th birthday earlier in the year at Tibet House (London) in honour of all the work he had done for Tibet.

He is survived by his two sons Martin and Giles.

Author: Tsering Passang (Tsamtruk)

Tsering Passang is passionate about Tibet and the Tibetan issue. He was born in a Tibetan refugee camp in western Nepal. An NGO professional with nearly 20 years of experience in international development charities, Tsering has led Tibetan Community UK from 2014 to 2016 as its Chairman. Amongst his pioneering initiatives as the Community Leader, Tsering spearheaded "Tibetans Helping Tibetans" initiative and within months, it resulted in securing the sponsorship of 30 Tibetan refugee children for their education in India from 25 UK-based Tibetan families. Prior to his current appointment as the Director of Tibet Foundation, Tsering served as Special Adviser to the Tibet Society, the world's oldest Tibet support group. He also worked for Tibet Relief Fund for over eight years, raising vital funds for Tibetan children’s education in India and Nepal. From 2001 to 2007, he worked for Tibet Foundation as Art & Culture Programme Manager. Tsering has conducted multiple field trips to India and Nepal over the past two decades. After returning from his 2008 personal trip to Mustang, Tsering saw a need to provide training to those Tibetan teachers working in rural areas. Within a year, with the support of western teaching professionals, Tsering initiated the vital training programme for the teachers. Over 50 Tibetan refugees and ethnic Tibetan teachers from Mustang, Manang, Dhorpatan, Pokhara and Kathmandu attended the trainings delivered in Mustang, Kathmandu and Pokhara. He developed partnerships with the local NGOs and schools in Nepal. From 2014 to 2016, Tsering served on the boards of Tibet Society and Tibet House Trust. He also served as the Chairman and a Trustee of the Tibetan Refugee Charitable Trust. Tsering continues his advocacy work on Tibet. He has attended and engaged with parliamentarians, special advisers and officials from the UK, UN, the US and EU. Tsering has also spoken at important public and closed forums – audience included governments representatives, policymakers, rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, NGO professionals, university students and researchers. In addition to his writings on the Tibetan affairs, published in the British, Nepalese and Tibetan media, Tsering was interviewed by the BBC, Sky News and Reuters. He is also frequently interviewed by the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Voice of Tibet. Tsering has conducted special interviews with leading Tibetan political figures - President of the Tibetan Government-in-exile (Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama's former Special Envoy (Washington-based) and former Representative (London-based) for a Tibetan YouTube channel – LondonNey Production. Tsering’s personal blog: www.tsamtruk.com Tsering's latest initiative is the creation of the Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities (GATPM) - an advocacy group with the object of highlighting the issues affecting the Tibetans, Uyghur Muslims as well as other peoples persecuted by the Chinese regime.

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