A ROLLESTON man who was honoured by the Dalai Lama for services to the people of Tibet has died at the age of 90.
Radio operator Robert Webster Ford is widely thought to have been the last westerner out of Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1950, as he remained when he could have escaped safely so he could continue to broadcast information to the Tibetans.
He suffered years of incarceration at the hands of the Chinese because of his decision to stay, and, as a result, gained the highest regards from the Buddhist leader, who, earlier this year, awarded him Tibet’s Truth of Life Award at a moving private ceremony in Switzerland.
Born in Church Road, Rolleston, in March 1923, Mr Ford attended Rolleston Primary School and Alleynes Grammar School in Uttoxeter.
In 1939 he enlisted as an apprentice in the RAF, before being posted to India in 1943.
After the war he joined the British Political Mission in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, as a radio officer. He became the first westerner to be employed by the Tibetan government and set up the country’s first broadcasting station.
In 1949, he was invited to personally meet the young Dalai Lama – a man considered to be Buddha incarnate by the Tibetan people – and received the blessing normally reserved for high officials.
“He had been such a high blessing to Tibet, because it had been cut off for such a long time. There was no transport, and people travelled on yak trails and camel trails,” said Arnold Burston, who has researched Mr Ford’s life in detail.
Soon after, he left Lhasa to set up a radio station in Chamdo, in the east of the county, but just months later Mao’s Chinese army invaded the country and he was captured and accused not only of espionage, but of murdering a Chinese official.
Mr Burston said: “He was held for five months in solitary confinement in a rat-infested prison. He was not allowed to wash and sometimes had to sit for 16 hours a day without moving. After three years of brainwashing, he agreed to sign a false confession so he could write to his parents. They had no idea if he was dead or alive.”
In 1954, Mr Ford was jailed for 10 years on charges of espionage, but he was deported to Hong Kong and freed in 1955.
He received a rapturous reception when he returned to Rolleston, where he married childhood friend Monica Tebbett and later had a distinguished diplomatic career.
He marked his 90th birthday earlier this year with a reception held at the Kailash Centre in London and hosted by Thublen Samdup, representative of the Dalai Lama,
At the reception, Mr Samdup said: “Mr Ford is a part of Tibetan history. He is perhaps the only surviving westerner who witnessed a free and independent Tibet.”
The following month he was bestowed with the highest possible honour by the Dalai Lama himself.
He died in London at the end of last month, and leaves two son.