An interview with Dr. Nicholas Farrelly

An interview with a Southeast Asian expert

Mish Khan

Society and culture | Asia, Australia

16 October 2015

This week we caught up with Dr Nicholas Farrelly, a fellow at the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, to discuss his academic career and life as a former ANU student. Nicholas is the director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre and convenor of the PhB program in the College of Asia and the Pacific. Nicholas also runs the Asia Pacific Week internship course and supervises various honours, masters and PHD students at ANU.

Nicholas was born in Canberra and retains “close connections” to the city, feeling really privileged” to be working and living in a city which is continuously developing. An ANU alumnus himself, Nich grew up in Canberra and studied a bachelor of Asian Studies at the ANU. After completing graduate study in the UK, he seized the opportunity to return to ANU where he has built an incredible academic career focused around Southeast Asian studies. Speaking fondly of his time as an ANU student, Nicholas felt he would be “always thankful” for the individual attention he received from passionate academics prominent within the Southeast Asian Studies field. It appears that Nich’s ANU experience was instrumentally influential to his future in more ways than one- many are unaware that Nich met his wife when working at Woroni!

When we asked Nicholas how he found himself within his current research area, he detailed a journey that began with a focus on Indonesia and bloomed into a wider interest in Southeast Asia. After studying Indonesian at school, he was unable to spend much time in Indonesia due to the security situation at the time. Instead, he spent a year in Thailand working with a northern Thai rural development organisation. The intensive language and cultural experience threw him into the deep end straight away, and the skills from the experience helped him emerge with an honours thesis on the Shan people. But the question of what next was already playing on Nich’s mind, who sought to challenge himself even further.

Focusing on “politics, social change, and potential for conflict,” Nicholas was soon drawn to Myanmar, which he described as “a mess” under its heavy constraints at the time. A process of gradually working his way into the “Myanmar realm” began as he built up the confidence to research in the fringes such as the Shan and Kachin states. It wasn’t until 2013 that he was able to conduct research in a Bamar majority, Burmese speaking area. Nicholas labels these as “early difficult years of trying to understand what my own research activities would look like.” He believes these areas of Asia are “so important to Australia’s future” but have been drastically unacknowledged, something he wishes to change.

Nicholas feels that the rewards from “effective academic work” are “endlessly fulfilling” as being able to explain a complex matter in a way that encourages people to appreciate its “subtleties” is a challenge, but is incredibly rewarding when successful. However, he notes that the “academic business is a tough one” due to its intensely critical nature. Nich credits his website New Mandala, which provides commentary on Southeast Asian political affairs, as a learning tool for his resilience. Growing accustomed to “strongly worded” criticism forces him to continuously evaluate and improve upon his writing, and he expressed that criticism, when done well, “improves all of our works”.

For current students Nicholas outlined four main pieces of advice for university. Firstly, he stresses the need to take risks in order for students to “stretch their wings”. Secondly, for those interested in the world around them Nicholas emphasised learning foreign languages as a vital skill which offers exposure to different ways of thinking. Thirdly, this is best accomplished by students spending “a lot of time outside Australia,” and lastly, by taking advantage of their youth and flexibility, students should travel to all types of challenging places. This allows students to develop their adaptation skills and ultimately, be comfortable in any type of environment.

Nicholas is a great academic to have a chat with about Southeast Asia, and enjoys talking with passionate students. You can read his website New Mandala at if you want an interesting and easy way to stay up to date on what’s happening around the region.

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