Obituary: Charles Booth

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Charles Booth was the only British diplomat to have served three times in Burma, the third time as ambassador. He was warmly attached to that wayward country and equally warmly esteemed by the Burmese, who, in spite of the severance of the Commonwealth link, still feel more comfortable with the British than with other foreigners.

Booth was born in 1925, and educated at Heywood Grammar School and Pembroke College, Oxford, where he took a degree in History in 1950. From 1943 until 1947 he served in the Airborne Division of the Royal Artillery and was involved in support of the civil power in the run-up to Indian independence. He joined the Foreign Office in 1950, and was posted to Rangoon in 1951. This first tour enabled him to learn Burmese, to travel widely round the very varied country - impossible to do later when diplomats were severely restricted - and to make many loyal Burmese friends.

Back in the Foreign Office from 1955 to 1960, he served as Private Secretary to the Parliamentary Secretary of State and was one of the Resident Clerks, living up in the attics of the old India Office and acting as first line of defence in the evenings and at weekends in the event of foreign coups d'etats or other alarms. Posted to Rome as First Secretary in 1960, he was involved in the Queen's State Visit the following year and appointed LVO and to the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

He returned to Rangoon in 1963 as Head of Chancery, but his posting was cut short the next year as the embassy was reduced in size; the Revolutionary Council's determination to cut links with the rest of the world left little for diplomats to do. Booth's transfer to Bangkok was logical administratively, but the two neighbouring countries are as different from each other as, say, England and Turkey, and he left Rangoon with regret, in spite of the difficulties imposed there by the regime and the fact that many of his Burmese friends had been imprisioned. After another spell in the Foreign Office from 1967 to 1968, he served successively in Kampala as Deputy High Commissioner, in Washington as Consul General and Counsellor in charge of the Administration, and as Counsellor in Belgrade, where he was glad to get back to political work and observe the intricacies of Tito's domestic and foreign balancing acts.

In 1978 he returned to Rangoon as Ambassador, the post he had always set his sights on, and was appointed CMG in 1979. By this time the Ne Win regime had somewhat softened. In spite of the fact that any Burmese official - which meant virtually anyone, since the private sector had been all but abolished - had to ask permission before consorting with a foreign diplomat and write a report afterwards, Booth managed to make excellent use of his earlier contacts. He was able to promote useful British aid projects, under the aid trade provision (ATP) whereby, for example, a company like John Brown Engineering was subsidised to construct a much- needed power station.

He was particularly proud of unearthing from a shed in the zoo a statue of Sir Arthur Phayre, a proconsul of early British rule after whom one of Rangoon's main streets was named, and persuading the minister responsible to let him set it up in the Residence garden. The Burmese, for their part, were delighted to have a British ambassador who understood them and regarded their post-colonial difficulties with real sympathy.

Booth's last post was as High Commissioner in Malta, for him something of an anticlimax. After that he solved the familiar problem of public servants retired at 60, by signing on again for security clearance work in the Foreign Office, thus gaining five more years of congenial company.

Besides his love of the Burmese language and people, Charles Booth was keen on opera, and in his retirement in Suffolk became increasingly interested in exploring the delights of his own country, having spent most of his working life abroad. He was always interested in other people's perceptions and ideas and took great trouble to encourage the young.

Martin Morland

Charles Leonard Booth, diplomat: born 7 March 1925; LVO 1961; Ambassador to Burma 1978-82; CMG 1979; High Commissioner, Malta 1982-85; married 1958 Gill Emms (two sons, two daughters); died Southwold, Suffolk 21 March 1997.

Comments