His Holiness the Dalai Lama presenting Robert Ford with ICT’s Light of Truth Award in April 2013/photo/ICT
DHARAMSALA, September 25 : The first foreigner to serve in the Tibetan government services and given an official rank has passed away in England on September 20 at the age of 90. Robert Webster Ford joined the Government of Tibet as a radio operator in the early 1940’s. He was asked by the Tibetan government to start Tibet’s first broadcasting station, train Tibetan radio operators and set up a radio communications network throughout Tibet.
Robert Ford, who was serving the Tibetan Government when Communist Chinese forces began their invasion, was honored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the International Campaign for Tibet’s ‘Light of Truth Award’ in April this year for his “tireless advocacy on behalf of Tibet for more than half a century.”
Following the ceremony that became Ford’s last meeting with the Dalai Lama, who regarded him as a close friend, Ford said, “I had the great privilege of having my first audience with His Holiness in Lhasa in the early 1940s. He was only 11 years old; I feel so honored to receive the Light of Truth award from His Holiness almost 70 years later. One of the advantages of living a long life like me is that you witness some extraordinary changes, some of which earlier in your life you would never imagine could have happened. This gives me great hope and I wish with all my heart that we will once again see a return to a free Tibet.”
“I am a member of a rather exclusive club of Westerners who had 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,” Ford said.
Robert Ford upon capture by Chinese troops in 1950/ICT
Known better as Phodo Kusho (Ford Sir) by the Tibetans, he was captured by PLA troops in 1950 after an earthquake cut off a planned escape route. During his nearly five years of imprisonment, he was subjected to interrogation and ‘thought reform’ and was in constant fear of execution. After being sentenced in 1954 to a 10-year term for “espionage,” he was released in 1955 and subsequently expelled.
Ford was born on 27 March 1923, in Staffordshire, Britain. 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.
In Lhasa, Ford built Radio Lhasa, and for the first time, Lhasa was able to broadcast to the outside world. After a year in Tibet’s capital, Ford was asked to go to Chamdo in Kham, eastern Tibet, to expand the Tibetan radio communications network. As well as creating a radio link between Lhasa and Chamdo, he and his trainees helped the then Governor General of Kham, Lhalu Tsewang Dorje, improve defence in Chamdo and the surrounding area.
Ford’s book, Captured in Tibet
, published in 1957, gives a vivid picture of life in Tibet under the shadow of Communist Chinese invasion.
In a microblog posted on September 23, Tibetan writer and blogger Tsering Woeser wrote, “Mao had long ago announced to the world that imperialist forces had invaded Tibet, and therefore the People’s Liberation Army must march on Lhasa to bring the people of Tibet back to the big family of the People’s Republic of China. But while the PLA advanced forces prepared to make war on Chamdo, the only ‘imperialist’ force entrenched there was a single Englishman named Ford. Even across the entirety of Tibet at the time there were very few Westerners!”
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 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 founder member of the Tibet Society in 1959 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 1992, he undertook a lecture tour in India, at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, speaking at military and civilian institutions as well as in the Indian Parliament. Ironically, he and his wife had to cut short their tour after they were detained in Dharamsala by the Indian authorities as their visit had coincided with Chinese Premier Li Peng’s official visit to India.
In 1996, Ford organised the first meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a member of the British Royal family. His Holiness met the late Queen Mother together with Ford at Clarence House.
In March 2013, the office of the Dalai Lama’s Representative in London arranged a reception in honor of Ford on his 90th birthday during which he was presented with the last of his salary, a 100 Srang note of Tibetan currency. Ford was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities before his salary was due. Ford was quoted as saying, “I had jokingly reminded the Tibetans recently that I had not been paid and they’d better hurry up. It’s an honour to receive this from the Tibetans. It was a very special, sometimes difficult, time in my life.”
Bhuchung Tsering, Interim President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “We offer our deepest condolences to Robert Ford’s family. Tibetans everywhere will remember Robert Ford for his service to Tibet, and even having to suffer incarceration because of it, at a turning point in Tibetan history. ICT is honored to have been able to bestow our the Light of Truth award to him.”
Ford is survived by his two sons, Martin and Giles, and three grandchildren, Emma, Candice and Nicholas.