A gentle giant of Myanmar studies has left us. John Okell died painlessly at home earlier this week. At the time of his death, John was the English-language world’s pre-eminent teacher of the Burmese language. He stood on the shoulders of giants, but his many textbooks, dictionaries and early adoptions of new technology, such as publishing learning materials as personal cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s and pioneering the Avalaser Burmese computer font, uniquely enabled and opened the study of Burmese to thousands of new learners. John also created the most widely used romanisation scheme for transliterating the Burmese language into the Roman alphabet.
John’s name graces dozens of acknowledgements sections in theses, articles, books and other publications on Myanmar. He was a true denizen of the scholarly community as well as a much-loved linguist, teacher, friend, father and husband. Simply put, everyone studying Myanmar knew John or wanted to know John. He showed enviable generosity in helping his friends, colleagues and students and was deft in assisting all learners of Burmese in achieving their particular goals.
John was also Chairman of the Britain–Burma Society, where he was widely respected as a fair and generous host. I remember at one of the Society’s sessions in 2017 which premiered a documentary stridently critical of the military regime, John patiently listened to the many complaints from elderly British members of the Society who had had their family’s assets expropriated or nationalised. He was always tactful and understood deeply the humanity and sadness of the people living in Burma, who were the real victims of the slide into poverty that the country underwent during the first forty years of his teaching career. John was committed to teaching Burmese to help Myanmar reconnect with the outside world, whenever it should become politically feasible once more, which it did eventually.
John first began studying Burmese in 1959 at SOAS, University of London under Saya Hla Pe and others. He was sent to Burma in September 1960, where he quickly moved out from his assigned university dormitory to a homestay arrangement in Amarapura. John also lived in a monastery for a time, in a rural village out past Shwebo and he even accompanied a theatre troupe for a month, performing in Bhamo, Indawgyi and Mogaung. He roamed to Dawei, Sittwe and Inle Lake, and came back to SOAS a year later speaking fluent Burmese. Being made first Lecturer and Senior Lecturer there, he was eventually hired as Professor of Burmese. John taught or was connected to SOAS in some capacity until his death.
While he did “officially retire” at age 65, John continued publishing on Burmese and teaching for the British government and elsewhere. In October 2016 John taught intensive classes at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, for the Australia-Myanmar Institute. It was John’s first visit here and, at the age of 82, he maintained that he would be getting around only by bicycle. He came to be unimpressed with Australia’s draconian helmet laws, jollily describing my home as a “nanny state” for the readiness of its police to stop gentleman who insisted on riding with a flat cap rather than an Australian Standard-approved bicycle helmet.
John also taught classes in Chiang Mai, Thailand for several years, and beginning in 2009 started teaching intensive courses in Yangon, Myanmar, which he continued for eleven more years. John would make an annual remark about the absurdity that he, a British person, was still being invited to teach Burmese in Myanmar, but there was an insatiable and growing demand by foreigners living in Myanmar for John’s inimitable in-person pedagogy.
I had the immense pleasure of working with John in administrating these intensive Burmese language classes in Yangon in 2017, 2018 and 2019. He used to refer to me as a “brick”. It ironically took me some time to fathom that this was meant as a compliment. In 2017 I assisted John with the typesetting and new digital edition of his Dictionary of Grammatical Forms. Assisting John in his roles as a teacher and as an author was an absolute pleasure. He had an immaculate attention to detail we can only aspire to.
In 2018, the British Embassy in Myanmar held an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the in-country Bamazaga Burmese intensive language course. John and his co-teacher Justin Watkins described the early years of running the course, when Myanmar was starting to “open up” but it was by no means clear that the radical notion of British linguists teaching Burmese in Myanmar would be tolerated. The surreptitious small class first sat in an improvised environment above an art studio in downtown Yangon, before moving to the French Institute when the course became official.
The impacts of COVID-19 meant the 2020 course had to move online. John still participated as a teacher from his London home but unfortunately fell ill during the first week in June, only two months before he passed away. John was a committed teacher. He taught Burmese right up until he was literally physically no longer able to.
In 2016 John was awarded an honorary doctorate from SOAS. In 2014 he was deservedly honoured as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to UK/Burma relations. An incredibly humble person, John was never comfortable with these designations. I asked him several times over the last five years if I could officially interview him for the ANU Myanmar Research Centre’s podcast Myanmar Musings. He always politely refused.
“I’m really not that interesting,” he would say.
Well, John, the hundreds and hundreds of people that have had the pleasure of being touched by your example and conduct, in Myanmar and all over the world, must disagree with you there.
You not only led a phenomenally interesting life, but you have had an incredible, indispensable impact on Myanmar studies since you first set foot in Amarapura in 1960. Your humility, friendliness, openness and patience, your lessons, articles, textbooks and – simply put – your example, will remain with all of us who loved you, for as long as we shall continue to live.
From the Myanmar Research Centre and from the Burma studies community more broadly--