Man who set up Tibet radio gets £65 in back-pay 63 years later

Former civil servant Robert Ford received back-pay of £65 on his 90th birthday

By Peter Simpson | SCMP

LONDON, UK, 29 March 2013

Patience is a virtue that has finally paid off for Robert Ford.

The 90-year-old British national has finally received back-pay for his job setting up a radio network in Tibet — but only after waiting for more than half a century.

The former civil servant was the only Westerner working for the Tibetan government when China invaded the Himalayan nation in 1950.

But pay day was postponed because he was captured by advancing PLA troops as he attempted a daring escape on horseback across the frozen plateaus.

The Tibetan government in exile, which is based in India, handed Ford the last of his salary, a 100 Tam Srang note worth £65 (HK$764), at a ceremony in London on Wednesday, his 90th birthday.

“We heard Robert was about to turn 90, so we thought it best we pay him what we owe. We’re sorry it has taken so long to give him his final wage, but there has been extenuating circumstances,” Tibet British representative, Thubten Samdup, said.

Ford’s last salary was due in October 1950. But, along with his Tibetan bosses, he was thrown into jail and solitary confinement by the Chinese. Threatened with execution for being a spy, he was subjected to daily “struggle sessions” in an effort to turn him into a Communist sympathiser.

“I came to work on the day of the invasion and was told by the fleeing staff my bosses had fled. I grabbed my pony, and caught up with my superiors two days later, but we were then all captured,” said Ford, who moved to Tibet to help set up the country’s radio network after serving in the RAF during the second world war.

As the British newspapers reported at the time, Ford, from London, was the first foreigner to be given an official rank in the country and was dubbed “the Loneliest Briton in the World” because of his remote posting.

He spent four years in jail before the Chinese allowed him to write a letter home to his mother telling her he was alive. He was sentenced in 1954 to a 10-year term for espionage, but then released in 1955 and expelled.

He was escorted to the Hong Kong border and turned over to the colonial government.

On his return to Britain, Ford wrote about his experiences in a newspaper and the articles were turned into an international bestseller, Captured in Tibet.

“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, if sometimes difficult, time in my life,” said Ford.

He campaigned for Tibetan independence after his return to Britain. “I wouldn’t want to go back. I hear it has changed dramatically. Sadly, I don’t hold out much optimism for the Tibetan people in Tibet,” he said.

Tibetans are seeking greater autonomy. Some 110 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest over Beijing’s rule since 2009. The most recent was a mother of four who self-immolated in protest on Monday.

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