Dr Nick Cheesman

If you had to explain your research to someone who has no knowledge of your subject area, how would you explain it?

I am researching torture in Southeast Asia. Torture has become a major issue worldwide, especially since 9/11 and the political changes globally. However, a lot of the research that has been done since that time does not really account for the situation in Southeast Asia.

The way that torture is practiced and the kinds of cases do not really have a correspondence with that more general literature. So I am trying to explain the phenomenon in Southeast Asia, and also talk back to the research done more generally, which, broadly speaking, takes two forms.

One, concerned with ethical and moral/philosophical questions, and it is rather abstracted and usually involves scenarios that do not relate to the real world in any way. And the other kind of research is concentrated on specific cases, but again they are cases that do not correspond with the kinds of cases we see in Southeast Asia.

My study is a comparative study of torture in Burma and Thailand specifically. That is where I am doing the new work, or will be. And then I want to compare the stuff that I find there with the work that has been done in South Asia, because there is some work already that has been done in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka.

How did your previous research lead to you current research?

The previous research I did was on the courts in Burma. I came to that work out of working in a human rights organisation in the early 2000s and mid-2000s. And while I was doing that work, I found that I was surprised about how people in Burma tended to complain in cases and about issues to the courts and to administrative offices that I had not expected them to, and in a manner that I had not expected.

I had a conception, a preconception, of a military dictatorship in which the institutions were really unsympathetic to people’s needs and interests and would not provide redress, and in fact all of that is true. Nevertheless, people tended to complain about all kinds of things and in a manner that surprised me. So that was the starting point for that work.

Initially I just wanted to look at complaints and complaining and how and why people complain in an authoritarian political situation in which it seemed unlikely that they would get any satisfaction for their complaints. But as I went on, I found that nobody else had done research on the courts or police in Burma, academically, for half a century or thereabouts, except for some rather formalistic legal work done by one or two expatriate Burmese lawyers. I ended up having to expand my study and then reorient it, and I reoriented it to general questions about why courts worked the way they did in Burma.

Why do you think the world would be a better place if there were more people in your field?

In my work, I try to think about how I undertake work as a researcher which is important to me personally, and it emerges out of the earlier work that I did in the human rights field.

So whereas a lot of the work that academics are expected to do these days increasingly is aimed at, sort of, satisfying the requirements of government departments and the interests of funding agencies, to be frank, all of my research points to an interest in engaging with questions about the identity of the state and how the state uses violence, both in overt and covert ways, to advance interests that are often contrary to public interests, the interests of ordinary people.

And sometimes that work actually requires that we research and write in a way which is not convenient for governments or for funding agencies, and that defies the expectations that are normally imposed on us.

What was your initial attraction to Thailand and Burma as focal points for your own research?

I took an interest in Burma from the early 1990s, when I was a university student. I initially went to the border area of Thailand and Burma and lived in a refugee camp for a number of years, as part of the Overseas Service Bureau.

And from there, I went into working in a local non-government organisation. And I cannot recall precisely if I had an epiphany or anything like that, but I knew when I finished my university degree I wanted to leave Australia.

I have an abiding hatred for any form of political activity by the military, so that motivated me to take interest in that location as well as Thailand, which at that time was passing out of military rule, but later came back into it.

And so that would be my initial attraction, but later on, as I started to do the research, I drifted away from situating myself as an Area Studies scholar and thinking more in terms of the disciplines that I was working in.

I do not want to just tell a story about torture in Burma or Thailand. And likewise, with the rule of law stuff, I did not want to just tell a story about the courts in Burma. In fact, the story I ended up telling was really a story about the law through the case study of Burma.

What was your experience like, living at the refugee camp between Burma and Thailand?

I wanted to live somewhere that was completely different from anywhere I had lived previously. And have day-to-day experiences that would enable me to see the world in a different way from how I had been raised.

It was really a way of situating myself in a time and place that was completely removed from anything else that I had been in previously. The camp was not all that remote from a border town. There were certainly more remote ones. It was about 15 to 20 kilometres away from a border town.

And so travelling in and out of it was not that arduous: it was an hour or so by public transport. Although the distance was not great, the public transport was slow and the roads not good at that time.

But once inside the camp, it really did feel like another world. There was no international agency involvement in the condition of the refugees at that time, beyond the delivery of some food supplies managed through a consortium of charities in Bangkok. There was no UN, no presence of any sort, because the government in Thailand did not want it. And so the camp was really run by the refugee community itself. They had a camp committee and administrators at all the different sections of the camp that were responsible for management.

What do you find most interesting about working at ANU?

The vibrancy of the intellectual community at the ANU, obviously, in the Asia-Pacific, is second to none. The opportunities for engagement and conversations, both with colleagues at the institution, but also just the sheer numbers of people coming through the institution constantly.

We have the Asian Studies Association of Australia conference next week. That is one instance, but I just find that throughout the year, constantly, there are people coming and going and the opportunities for conversations are almost endless. In fact, if I did take every opportunity that presented itself, I am sure I would not get anything else done.

I have developed lasting collegial relationships and cooperation, opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. And the engagement, both with undergraduates and also with postgraduate students, is wonderful.

You look at the calibre and diversity of the research student population in each department and it is just quite remarkable, the talent and the knowledge which is concentrated in this building.

Teaching makes me go back and rethink about the methods, the designs that I use in my own research. Any time we are working on something as an instructor, if you are working as a reflective teacher and you are thinking critically about the work you do yourself, you go back to that work and a course like this informs that work, both in its design and sometimes also in its substantive content.

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