Briton Radio Broadcaster Remembered for Service in Tibet

Briton Radio Broadcaster Remembered for Service in Tibet

(28 September 2013, London)

(Photo credit: Tibetan Community in Britain – Tibetan Prayer Service at Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London)

Sir Robert Ford, who was serving the Tibetan Government when Communist Chinese forces began their invasion, died in London on 20th September 2013 at the age of 90. The Englishman was working as a radio officer in Kham for the government of Tibet in the 1940s, in charge of setting up Tibet’s first broadcasting station and training Tibetan radio operators.

On hearing the sad news, members of Tibetan Community in Britain organised a special prayer service led by Geshe Tashi Tsering, Spiritual Teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London on Thursday 26th September. A few members of Robert Ford’s family attended the Tibetan prayer service.

Whilst conveying condolences, Thubten Samdup, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama paid a fitting tribute to the Briton by saying, “Sir Robert Ford had a special relationship with Tibet and the Tibetan people. He had extensively engaged in raising the plight of Tibetan people after his retirement from the British civil service through public lectures. He was the last living Westerner who witnessed Tibet before she was invaded by China.” Samdup then delivered messages from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, Tibetan Political Leader.

Robert Ford presented with ICT's Light of Truth award by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in April 2013
(Photo: ICT – Robert Ford presented with ICT’s Light of Truth award by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in April 2013)

In his personal message to Sir Robert Ford’s family, The Dalai Lama wrote, “On this sad occasion, I join Robert Ford’s many other friends and well-wishers in paying affectionate respect to a man who lived a long and meaningful life.

“Robert Ford occupies a special place in the history of Tibet. Not only was he the first Englishman employed as an official by the Tibetan Government then, but he later became the only European to be captured by Chinese forces. He was imprisoned for his service to Tibet and held for nearly five years until his expulsion in 1955.

“His memoir ‘Captured in Tibet’ gave its readers a clear understanding of the tragedy that befell Tibet. This record of his time in the Land of Snow had the great value of being a realistic eye-witness account in which he revealed not only the Tibetan qualities he admired, but also the short comings that contributed to our vulnerability.”

Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay wrote, “Tibet has lost one of its truest and oldest friends. He was one among the very few Westerners who witnessed a free and independent Tibet, having worked for the Government of Tibet as a radio broadcaster in 1947. He will be remembered by Tibetans for being a tireless advocate for the Tibetan cause for over half a century.”

Appreciating the special Tibetan prayer service, Giles Ford, one of the two sons of Robert, said, “My father spent some of the happiest days of his life in Tibet … a free and independent Tibet. The Tibetan people were very close to my father’s heart. I know that he would be so honoured and touched by this wonderful ceremony tonight and I am sure he is smiling down on us.

“My father leaves a huge gap in our lives … but thankfully we have so many special memories to cherish. One of those is the wonderful 90th birthday celebration the Tibetan community gave my father. He was so very, very moved by the occasion and the affection shown to him.”

Acknowledging the Briton’s contribution, Tenzin Samphel, Chairman of Tibetan Community in Britain, said, “We cannot forget our dedicated supporter. We pay tribute and recognise Robert Ford’s contribution to the Tibetan cause”. Earlier this year, The Office of Tibet hosted a reception in celebration of Robert Ford’s 90th birthday in London.

In April, Sir Robert Ford received International Campaign for Tibet’s (ICT) Light of Truth award from the Dalai Lama in acknowledgment of his tireless advocacy on behalf of Tibet for more than half a century. After accepting the award, Mr. Ford said: “I am a member of a rather exclusive club of Westerners who have the privilege and good fortune to see, know and witness a free Tibet before 1950. I spent some of the happiest days of my life in Tibet. The Tibet that I found when I first went there in 1945 was vastly different to the Tibet of today. It was an independent country with its own government, its own language, culture, customs and way of life. … To me as an outsider, the most remarkable feature of Tibetans was their devotion to their religion and their unswerving support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Another striking feature was their remarkable self-reliance both in the material and the spiritual sense. Tibet valued its self-imposed isolation and independence. Its simple wish was to be left alone to run its own affairs in the way that it thought best.”

Ford is survived by his two sons, Martin and Giles, and three grandchildren, Emma, Candice and Nicholas.

(This report is compiled by Tsering Passang for Tibetan Community in Britain.)

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Brief biography

Robert Ford was born on 27 March 1923, in Staffordshire, England. He served in the Royal Air Force as a radio technician during World War II in England and in India, and in 1945 he joined the British Mission in Lhasa as a Radio Officer. There is a unique historical relationship between Britain and Tibet because Britain signed treaties and conducted diplomatic and military relations with an independent Tibet, and so had an influence that no other Western country enjoyed. At the time, British influence across the Himalayas was an important counterweight to China’s for Tibet.

In late 1945, Mr. Ford transferred to the Political Office in Gangtok, Sikkim and remained there until 1947, when India became independent. It was then that he was able to fulfil an ambition to return to Tibet. He was asked by the Government of Tibet to join its service, to start Tibet’s first broadcasting station, train Tibetan radio operators and set up a radio communications network throughout Tibet. He was the first Westerner to be employed by the Government of Tibet and given an official rank. In Britain, newspapers at the time dubbed Ford “the loneliest Briton in the world” because of his remote posting.

He was captured by advancing PLA troops in 1950 after an earthquake cut off a planned escape route. During nearly five years of imprisonment, Ford was subjected to interrogation and ‘thought reform’ and was in constant fear of execution. He spent four years in jail before the Chinese allowed him to write a letter home to his mother telling her he was alive. After being sentenced in 1954 to a 10-year term for “espionage,” he was released in 1955 and expelled.

Following his release, in 1957 Ford joined the British Diplomatic Service. During his career he served in the Foreign Office in London and at various posts around the world; in Vietnam, Indonesia, the USA, Morocco, Angola, France, Sweden, and finally as UK Consul-General in Geneva, Switzerland, from where he retired in 1983. In 1982 Mr Ford was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

Ford married Monica Tebbett, a childhood friend from a nearby village in Staffordshire who was at the time working for the United Nations in New York, in 1956. “We met again and fell in love,” said Ford, according to a local village website. They were married for 55 years.

Ford remained active in retirement, enjoying hiking and travel, and only stopped skiing at the age of 86. His retirement also allowed him more time for active support to the Tibetan cause. He was a council member of the Tibet Society and remained a Vice President for the rest of his life. He wrote extensively and lectured on all aspects of Tibetan and Chinese affairs in the UK, the rest of Europe, Australia, and the United States.

In 1996, Ford organised the first meeting between the Dalai Lama and a member of the British Royal family. His Holiness met the late Queen Mother together with Ford at Clarence House.

(Biography credit: ICT)

Author: Tsering Passang (Tsamtruk)

NGO Professional | Activist | Author | Founder and Chairman, Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities (GATPM)

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