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SOAS scholar awarded OBE for services to UK-Burma relations

John Okell teaching pic

Photo credit: Sophie Baker

3 July 2014

John Okell, Research Associate in Burmese at SOAS, University of London has been awarded an OBE in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to UK-Burma relations.

Okell joined SOAS as a trainee lecturer in Burmese in 1959, after obtaining a BA in Literae Humaniores ("Greats") at The Queen's College, University of Oxford.

At SOAS, he studied Burmese with Dr (later Professor) Hla Pe and Anna Allott, who was subsequently awarded an OBE herself for services to UK-Burma relations, phonetics with Dr R K Sprigg and N C Scott, and linguistics with Professor Robins and Eugénie Henderson.

Okell worked at SOAS until the age of retirement in 1999. He has since continued teaching part time both for degree-course students in the South East Asia Department and for non-degree students in the SOAS Language Centre, among whom many are diplomats preparing for a posting in Yangon.  

His major publications include Burmese/Myanmar: a dictionary of grammatical forms (co-authored with Anna Allott), 2001; Burmese: an introduction, 1994; Burmese by ear, 2002 and various articles and papers on Burmese language and literature.

After retiring Okell was asked to run a short course in Thailand, for members of NGOs and UN missions engaged in assisting refugees and migrants from Burma, and for journalists and academics studying conditions there.  That course has become an annual event, as has a similar course that he teaches in Yangon with Dr Justin Watkins, his successor at SOAS and currently Senior Lecturer in Burmese and Linguistics. Student numbers for these courses have risen over the years to such an extent that they now have to engage additional teachers.  

Outside SOAS he has also worked with the Burmese Section of the BBC, he has served as Chairman of the Britain-Burma Society for many years, and is consulted on a range of topics by academics and the general public.  "But I suspect," he said, "that it is on account of my contribution to teaching, both courses and materials, that I was nominated for the award.  I am grateful to SOAS for providing the conditions that made this possible.  Many generations of students and users of my course books have expressed appreciation for my efforts, and it is gratifying to be given a public pat on the back for an activity that is sometimes undervalued."

Director of SOAS Professor Paul Webley commented: “John's commitment to teaching Burmese is admirable. Having taught at SOAS for almost 55 years he exemplifies the School's role as an indispensable interpreter in a complex world. John truly deserves this honour.”