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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Gehan Eardley Wijeyewardene (1932–2000)

by James J. Fox

How does one honour the memory of a colleague and friend like Gehan Wijeyewardene? We can recount his career and cite his achievements, but each of us harbours his or her own memories of Gehan as a remarkable individual.

Gehan Eardley Thomas Wijeyewardene was born in Colombo on 9 January 1932 into a distinguished Sinhalese family whose members belonged to the English-educated elite of Ceylon. He attended Royal College in Colombo and then went on to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, graduating with a BA (Hons) in English in 1954. During his student days, Gehan was involved in politics, drama and sports, reportedly playing hooker for the university rugby team. His English study under Professor E.F.C. Ludowyk led to a brief appointment as Assistant Lecturer in English (1954–55)—years later, in 1994, he was invited to deliver the 6th E.F.C. Ludowyk Guest Lecture in his teacher’s honour.

Gehan was awarded the Stephen Behrens Cohen Studentship at King’s College where he did a BA (Hons) in anthropology in 1956, then an MA in 1960 and eventually in 1962 his PhD. Those who knew Gehan and associate him with his longstanding work in Thailand may be surprised to learn that he obtained his PhD for research on Ki-Swahili-speaking coastal communities in Kenya and Tanzania (then still called Tanganyika). His PhD thesis, supervised by Edmund Leach, was titled ‘Some aspects of village solidarity in Ki-Swahili-speaking coastal communities of Kenya and Tanganyika’.

Gehan was joined in the field by his wife, Margaret, and their first daughter, Gisela, who was only a few months old when she and her mother arrived from England. During his time in the field, Gehan was affiliated as a Junior Research Fellow (from November 1957 to December 1959) at the East African Institute of Social Research, Makerere College, Kampala, for which he wrote several field reports.

After Cambridge, Gehan took up a position as Lecturer in the Department of Social Studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore, which became the University of Singapore. He was only in Singapore for just a few years (1961–64), but these were life-changing years for him. Gehan began fieldwork in Northern Thailand and he and his wife set out to teach themselves Thai using Mary Haas’s instructional tapes and texts. It was in Singapore that John Barnes offered him the position of Research Fellow at the ANU. He took up this position in the Department of Anthropology in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies on 29 January 1964. From 1964 until his retirement in 1997, his career was spent doing anthropology at the ANU.

It is interesting to note that already in 1965, Gehan had published his first article on ‘irrigation and agriculture’ in a north Thai village. Throughout his career at the ANU, his study of Thailand, his involvement in Thailand and his concern with Thailand was paramount.

As his corpus of publications on Thailand demonstrates, he had an abiding and wide-ranging interest in all things Tai. He was a pioneer in Tai studies in Australia and he contributed to making the ANU the centre that it became, during his time, for the study of Southeast Asia. Gehan was perhaps best known for his Tai-Yunnan Project and its accompanying newsletter, which he produced over many years. In addition to numerous papers, his major Thai monograph was Place and Emotion in Northern Thai Religious Behaviour (1986), but an interesting volume to read is the commemorative volume in memory of Richard Davis, Patterns and Illusions; Thai History and Thought (1992) that Gehan edited with Ted Chapman, which is a wide-ranging collection of essays by researchers whom Gehan taught or with whom he collaborated.

We anthropologists are a peculiar lot. We take pride in our differences, our eccentricities and the unusual topics that we investigate. Gehan was a master of cultivating these qualities and we all came to appreciate them in his character. Thus, if I may cite one example, his scholarly ‘ethno-ethological’ study of ‘Fighting Beetles’ published in Mankind in 1972 set an exceptional standard for all of us to emulate. Long before I met Gehan, I was already intrigued by a fascinating article he had written in Man in 1968 on ‘Address, abuse and animal categories in northern Thailand’— precisely because it dealt with a puzzling issue of ethnographic importance in Southeast Asia that few have properly recognised.

Gehan was a member of the Anthropology Department for 33 years. He added immensely to the flavour of the place. My earliest memories of Canberra include the memory of Gehan’s probing questions at the first seminar I gave in the department.

Gehan had little respect for forms of authority, and he waged his own personal wars against arbitrary decision-making. One memorable battle in which I joined him was over AusAID’s decision, at the time, on how scholarships were to be allocated to Thai students. Gehan was convinced, as I was, that anthropology was relevant to the whole development process.

Another memorable battle, Gehan waged alone. The school decided to establish a divisional structure and to group departments into divisions. Gehan objected strenuously to this new bureaucratic arrangement, insisting that he would simply not recognise it. And he managed to requisition enough stationery with the old letterhead to maintain his principled stand until he retired.

We all share memories of Gehan and we will continue to honour him in our memories. His PhD students—Ananda Rajah, Nerida Cook, Choltira Satyawahhana, Niti Pawakapan and Andrew Walker—are indebted to him as their respected teacher.

It is appropriate to conclude by quoting a few lines from the short obituary that Michael Young, another of Gehan’s colleagues in the department, has written for the divisional newsletter:

Gehan was a true sceptic, a sort of intellectual anarchist, who loved to challenge received opinion, just as he relished subverting bureaucratic authority. It would be nice to think of him arguing with Saint Peter about the inequitable seating arrangements in Heaven.

* This is a revised and extended version of a speech delivered at the memorial for Gehan on 31 August 2000 (Tai Culture 2(2): 6–7). It draws on Ananda Rajah’s excellent and extensive memoir, ‘Gehan Wijewardene (1932–2000)’ published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 2(1) (2006): 89–108, 0110001706055.

Additional Resources

Citation details

James J. Fox, 'Wijeyewardene, Gehan Eardley (1932–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 January, 1932
Colombo, Sri Lanka


25 August, 2000 (aged 68)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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