It is with great sadness that the Myanmar Research Centre communicates the passing of Professor Helen James. Helen will be remembered as a remarkable woman and academic with an enduring connection to Myanmar.
While she published several books and articles on other topics and regions in her wide-ranging scholarly career, Myanmar was the country Helen continually returned to, deepening her friendships and engagement with the country’s institutions over decades.
During her academic career Helen researched a wide range of Myanmar topics and issues, from colonial missionary history to disaster risk management. She cherished strong relationships with the Geography Department of Yangon University, forged many years ago when such relationships between foreign and Myanmar academics were difficult to achieve. Helen held conferences at Yangon University and facilitated many Myanmar academics’ first scholarly publications. Through her conference work, she also provided opportunities for dozens of international scholars to visit Myanmar for the first time and present their own research.
Helen founded a long-running program bringing a yearly cohort of Yangon University academics and professional staff from Myanmar to the Australian National University for academic training. At last count, Helen had been instrumental in orchestrating this training for over one-hundred individuals, many of whom had never left their home country before. This was only one small part of her long and broad efforts to foster engagement with Myanmar, in education and in government.
Helen supervised several Burmese graduate students over her later career. She especially enjoyed assisting students from Myanmar to realise their dreams of completing further studies in Australia and was a kind and methodical supervisor. She also supervised Australian students to do graduate research in Myanmar. At the time of her passing, she was Associate Supervisor for two Australian Anthropology PhD students who only recently returned from fieldwork in Myanmar: Luke Corbin and Anthea Snowsill.
Luke would like to say: “Helen was an open and loyal friend and an incredible PhD supervisor to me. She was enthused by my unusual research topic and was fundamental to enabling me to conduct the fieldwork that I did. I had the pleasure to meet with her on several occasions in Myanmar where she introduced me to influential and interesting people, who will all be greatly saddened by her passing. Whenever I visit the Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon, which was her regular place of accommodation, I always think of Helen and the joy she felt in Myanmar.”
Anthea would like to say: “I will always remember Helen’s kindness, generosity and support throughout my time as one of her PhD students. Helen was an impressive and inspiring woman who did important work in blazing the trail for subsequent generations of scholars working in Myanmar. Without Helen’s assistance and intellectual guidance, much of my ability to do long term fieldwork in Myanmar would not have been possible and I owe her deep gratitude for this. As a young researcher, I also really value the friendship that Helen extended to me and enjoyed meeting up with her in Myanmar during my fieldwork where she was keen to check in and learn how things were going. Helen modelled what it is to be a consummate academic and an exemplary person, and it is my hope that her legacy will be carried on by those she mentored.”
Helen is remembered by her colleague, Dr. Jane Ferguson: “Helen was a dedicated scholar of Myanmar, incisive and thoughtful. Her decades of research and educational work in Southeast Asian studies are formidable; I most enjoyed her enthusiasm, kindness, and eagerness to challenge. Through her long and dynamic career, I am inspired by her unflagging commitment to working with researchers and educators in Southeast Asian universities, in the true spirit of collaboration and friendship. She will be missed.”
Among her many other honours and achievements, Professor Helen James was simply a humble, generous and integral member of the Burmese studies community here at the ANU.
She will be sorely missed.