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Helen James (1947–2020)

by Liz Drysdale

Helen James grew up in Queensland, the eldest daughter of a high school principal. At 17 she won an Oriental Studies Scholarship to the ANU, where she majored in Indonesian language and Southeast Asian studies and lived at Bruce Hall from 1964 to 1966.

Helen was small, quiet, fiercely determined and not given to doing things by half measures. She rose regularly at 4 am to study; responded to her family’s opposition to her proposed marriage by eloping to Thailand; led a team of 35 university teachers at Thammasat University in Bangkok before she was 21; had six children, two of them born in the US while she obtained an MA and a PhD in just over three years; ended a career in the Australian public service by blowing the whistle on the agency responsible for air safety; and resumed an interrupted academic career by working largely as an independent scholar for 25 years.

Helen’s academic career began in Thailand, with an appointment at Thammasat University’s Linguistics Department in 1967. She wrote a PhD thesis on the American writer James Fenimore Cooper at Pittsburgh University in Pennsylvania, where her husband Vinit (Tony) Phinit-Akson had won a Rockefeller scholarship.

After they returned to Thailand, she worked in Thammasat University’s Department of English Language and Literature, which she headed from 1977 to 1980. She also had an appointment at Chulalongkorn University. The family stayed in Bangkok until political unrest prompted a return to Canberra in 1981. During this time the other four children were born.

After a short period teaching literature at ANU under Professor Bob Brissenden, Helen joined the Australian public service. In the ensuing seven years she served in the departments of Communications, Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet. After her marriage ended in 1984, Helen continued to work full-time while raising her large family.

In 1988 she joined the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It was in this post that her reserves of determination were particularly called upon. The CAA had become a statutory body, separate from the Department of Civil Aviation. In 1990 under new management, it underwent drastic cuts to staff, including the loss of some experienced safety regulatory officers.

In March 1992, amid concerns that safety was being compromised, a CAA Board Safety Committee was established, with former Qantas pilot and CAA board member Alan Terrell as its chair and Helen as its secretary. In 1992 and 1993, Helen was involved in work to examine safety standards, including as coordinator of a group to investigate the CAA Safety Regulation Division.

The group’s report was given a tight deadline and the requirement that it be unanimous. Just as the report was being finalised in early 1993, the group heard that a plane deemed not airworthy by an engineer had had its assessment overridden by CAA staff. That plane crashed the next day, killing both on board.

The report went to the board for approval and was returned with substantial rewriting and the omission of two crucial paragraphs about safety. A few months later, a Monarch Airlines plane crashed near Young, killing seven people. In October 1994 a third crash, of a Seaview Air plane, en route from Williamtown in NSW to Lord Howe Island, killed all on board.

Helen had meanwhile expressed her own concerns about CAA safety standards to senior people, but without result. Now colleagues were planning to go public. Helen was invited to participate in an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. By this time she had decided to seek redundancy because of difficulties in her job, and agreed to the interview. With her redundancy already approved, Helen found herself accused of misconduct and disloyalty; the redundancy payment would have been withheld but for the late intervention of the minister, Laurie Brereton.

After her retirement from the Australian public service, Helen resumed her academic career, joining the University of Canberra (UC) in 1995 as a Senior Lecturer, Executive Director of the University of Canberra Asia Research and Development Institute (UCARDI) and Director of the Thai/Myanmar Studies Centre. She remained at UC until 2000. UCARDI was an interdisciplinary body established to ‘foster regional co-operation in education and priority development areas, working through [UC’s] partner universities in the region. It include[d] experienced researchers in the Asian field from every Division at the University of Canberra and its partners in the Asian region’. Part of Helen’s work was to lead trips by Australian academics to Southeast Asia. Her extensive regional networks in academia and government were particularly helpful in this role.

In this period, she wrote her Thai Reference Grammar (2001) and a number of articles, and organised a joint conference between the University of Canberra and Thammasat University, entitled ‘Crossing Cultural Frontiers: The Communication Industries in the Asia Pacific Region’. It was held at the Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, on 28–29 April 1997, with the proceedings published under the same title.

In the same year, Helen received the order of Benchamabhorn, Member of the Most Noble Order of the Kingdom of Thailand, from His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, for services to Thai history, language, education and culture.

Helen moved to ANU in 2001, holding several positions (some honorary) based in what later became the College of Asia and the Pacific and the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS). Her work at ANU fell into three categories: studies of Myanmar; studies of civil society, religion and governance; and disaster risk reduction studies.

In 2002, while she was preparing one of two books on Myanmar, Helen spent time at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and Security Studies.

Her work on Myanmar continued in 2003–04, when she was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge University. In 2004 she was elected a life member of Cambridge University’s Clare Hall, and also visited the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In 2005 Helen published the first of two authored books on Myanmar: Governance and Civil Society in Myanmar: Education, Health and Environment; its sequel, Security and Sustainable Development in Myanmar, appeared the following year. These books were based on work begun while Helen was at the University of Canberra. Following her move to ANU, the project was housed within the University’s then Asia Pacific School of Economics and Management (which later became the Crawford School of Public Policy) and in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

In 2007 Helen published an edited volume, Civil Society, Religion and Global Governance: Paradigms of Power and Persuasion. This contained the proceedings of a two-day conference held at the National Museum of Australia in September 2005, supported by Australia’s aid agency, the Canadian High Commission and the ANU.

In 2011 Helen published a short article on dissent in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law (13(3): 5–11), arguing support for those such as Julian Assange who feel compelled to publish material in the public interest that authorities would prefer remained out of the public domain. This is consistent with her own actions in 1994, which led to the end of her Australian public service career.

Helen did not shy away from controversial questions. A divide in Myanmar studies existed between those who opposed economic sanctions against the military regime, and those who supported them. Helen was of the first group, because of the hardship that sanctions imposed on vulnerable people. This was another instance of her support for a view unpopular in her working environment. She argued her case in ‘King Solomon’s Judgment’, an essay published in 2004 as part of a collection in NBR Analysis 15(1), entitled ‘Reconciling Burma/Myanmar: Essays on US Relations with Burma’, edited by John H. Badgley (National Bureau of Asian Research).

While she continued to write on Myanmar, the second decade of the new millennium saw Helen’s broader focus switch to disaster risk management. In 2010 and 2011, she was Adjunct Associate Professor with the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute (ADSRI) in CASS.

Between 2011 and 2016 she led a team of eight researchers from ANU, the University of Tasmania, King’s College London and the University of the Philippines that received an ARC Discovery grant for a project entitled ‘Demographic Consequences of Asian Disasters’. This study of the long-term demographic consequences of Asian disasters was designed to contribute to the development of more effective governmental policies on disaster mitigation, preparedness and reconstruction/recovery, thus helping to reduce the human and material losses from natural disasters.

From 2010 to 2013, Helen contributed to courses in Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in ADSRI’s Master of Social Research program, and in Population, Climate Change and Sustainable Development in the Environment Management Program of the Crawford School of Public Policy.

In 2013 she was involved in organising two international conferences. The first, in February, was held in Yangon, and was entitled ‘Population in the Asian Century’. Speakers were from ADSRI at ANU, the University of Yangon and other Yangon institutes, and the conference was followed by two one-day workshops by ANU team members, one on ‘Population and Development’ and the other on ‘Mortality, Refugees and Migration’. The second conference, in September, was on ‘The Demography of Disasters: Implications for Future Policy on Development and Resilience’. The proceedings were published in The Consequences of Disasters: Demographic, Policy and Planning Implications, edited by Helen and Doug Paton (2016).

Between 2014 and 2016, Helen organised four two-week full-time intensive training courses for Myanmar scholars, using ANU demographers to teach social and demographic research methods under a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade–funded Government Partnerships for Development program.

A joint conference between the ANU and the University of Yangon was held at the latter on 2–3 February 2017. This led to the publication of an edited book, Population, Development and the Environment: Challenges to Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the Asia Pacific (2019). Many of the authors were researchers from the University of Yangon who had participated in the research training program funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade between 2014 and 2016.

Helen was appointed to the Australian Research Council College of Experts in 2013 and served on the editorial board of the journal Progress in Disaster Science from 2018 until her death.

In 2018 she was appointed founding director of the International Centre of Excellence for Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Science (IRDR) in the School of Culture, History and Language of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. This became the ANU Disaster Risk Science Institute (DRSI), launched in November 2019. Its September 2020 newsletter said: ‘Our Founding Director Professor Helen James left us with a very clear vision for the Institute—to be a holistic, inter-disciplinary, cross-campus entity that leads in integrated research on disaster risk science and works across three domains—research, public outreach and education.’ This seems to sum up Helen’s approach to scholarship: interdisciplinary and collaborative.

During her time at the University of Canberra and ANU, Helen had a second scholarly home, the National Library’s Petherick Room. Its staff are warmly acknowledged in her books. Also acknowledged is her beloved family of six children and 12 grandchildren. The acknowledgments of her books betray her warmth, and the very personal connection between her work and her beliefs.

In her spare time, Helen enjoyed golf and tennis. She was a member of the congregation of St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Forrest and was active in its choir.

Helen had particular strengths in collaboration, leadership and outreach, and was a committed PhD supervisor. Her strong networks in Myanmar in particular facilitated collaborative research. She contributed substantively to academic development in Myanmar through the short courses she arranged for its academics at ANU, through her PhD supervision, and through the study tours to Myanmar that she facilitated for Australian colleagues. Engagement with counterparts in the region was always a strong part of Helen’s way of working, and her close relationship with the University of Yangon’s Department of Geography was central to this. Tributes appearing on the ANU website soon after Helen’s death emphasised her strong commitment to graduate supervision, her personal warmth and her love for Myanmar.

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Citation details

Liz Drysdale, 'James, Helen (1947–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 31 May 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Phinit-Akson, Helen

13 March, 1947
Queensland, Australia


30 April, 2020 (aged 73)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.