Terence O'Brien

Diplomat with dash and elegance

Terence John O'Brien, diplomat: born Ranchi, India 13 October 1921; MC 1945; First Secretary, Kuala Lumpur 1960-62; Secretary to Intergovermental Committee, Jesselton 1962-63; Head of Chancery, New Dehli 1963-66; Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1968-70; ambassador to Nepal 1970-74; CMG 1971; ambassador to Burma 1974-78; ambassador to Indonesia 1978-81; married 1950 Phyllis Mitchell (died 1952), 1953 Rita Reynolds (one son, two daughters); died Wallingford, Oxfordshire 22 December 2006.

Terence O'Brien was a diplomat of great skill and honour. His career, after a spell on secondment to the Treasury in the 1950s, was centred in South and South East Asia, then an area with a Communist threat in various forms, and he served as British ambassador for 11 years to three countries there. He was a brilliant man and a cultivated historian with a dashing and elegant character and a great capacity for friendship.

O'Brien was born in India, the progeny of a long line of Irish civil servants who served the Raj, and in many ways he figured as an archetypal expatriate Celt. When he was 11 years old his father retired from India to Norfolk, where O'Brien was subsequently educated at Gresham's School, Holt, before becoming Postmaster Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, in 1939.

His university years were interrupted by the Second World War. Although he became a distinguished soldier he was always loath to talk of his war experiences: he served as a captain in the Ayrshire Yeomanry, landing in Normandy shortly after D-Day. He was awarded the Military Cross for his role in driving between Allied and enemy lines to conduct vital surveys ("I was decorated because I survived," he once said, his characteristic modesty laced with a sense of the tragedy he had witnessed as many of his colleagues were killed).

In 1947 he entered what was to become the Commonwealth Relations Office. His career first in the CRO and later in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was illustrious. His initial overseas assignment was to Ceylon - where he entertained guests to his bungalow in a silk dressing gown, a habit no doubt acquired in his thespian days at Oxford. His first brief marriage in Ceylon to Phyllis Mitchell ended sadly when she died of polio. After returning to London he married again, his partnership with Rita Reynolds providing the deep and long contentment he sought.

Except for a posting in the latter 1950s to Australia, all his career was focused on South and South East Asia, on which he became an informative expert. He served in Malaya in the early 1960s, just after the Communist emergency and at a time when Malay fear of being taken over by the Chinese was very great. There also remained the question of what the British should do about their colonies of Sarawak and British North Borneo: one of O'Brien's most enduring legacies was his role in helping to negotiate the merger of North Borneo into Malaysia.

O'Brien was subsequently sent to India. His job as Head of Chancery in Delhi was a tough one, particularly at a time of border disputes with China and distinctly uneasy Indo-Pakistan relations. After a period back in London, he was appointed ambassador to Nepal in 1970.

It was his most energetic posting: he and his wife undertook a great many treks to remote regions to assess British aid projects or aid possibilities. On one occasion O'Brien even made a trek with the then Nepalese Crown Prince Birendra, with whom he enjoyed a degree of real friendship. Kathmandu in the 1970s was a delightfully colourful and relaxed place, and it was perhaps most of all here that O'Brien's wry sense of fun emerged - notably when he devised the sport of duck racing in his large garden.

Service in Nepal saw him appointed CMG. But his personal, proudest achievement there was averting what would have been a serious famine through an unconventional relief operation that he mounted involving both the RAF and the Indian government.

Burma, to which he was posted as ambassador in 1974, was the most heart-rending of his assignments. He was appalled at the regime of General Ne Win, whom he was obliged to meet officially on many occasions. But he established warm bonds with many Burmese people and among his close friends were U Myint Thein, former Lord Chief Justice of democratic Burma, and Daw Khin Kyi, widow of the independence leader Aung San, who was formerly a political figure in her own right (she was also mother of Aung San Suu Kyi, now Burma's opposition leader).

Probably O'Brien's most testing post was his last: the vast archipelago of Indonesia, then presided over by Suharto (President from 1967 to 1998), where he was appointed ambassador in 1978. The greatest challenge he had to cope with there was a significant trade war between Britain and Indonesia - throughout which he and the Indonesian minister of trade, Radius Prawiro, remained on cordial terms and as friends privately commiserated with each other.

An avid and skilled fly fisherman, O'Brien retired to Dorset in 1981 from where he spent much of his time trout, and occasionally salmon, fishing.

John Heath

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice