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

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