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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
News
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Research and Insight Analyst (Mathematics Graduate)

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

IT Support Manager - Staffordshire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Manager - Near...

Nursery assistants required for day to day roles in Cambridge

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone