An exhibition on the Iranian student uprising reminds Pepper Lim of the same struggles in Malaysia

The Students Are Awake In Iran – a photography exhibition at The Annexe Gallery, KL, 16-24 July 2011. Photos in this article are from the exhibition and are shot by Iranian photojournalist Hasan Sarbakhshian.

12 years ago, in 1999, university students in Iran protested the closure of a local newspaper, Salam. Salam was a reformist newspaper that supported the reform programs of then President Mohammad Khatami. But his political opponents controlled the judiciary and the courts ruled the newspaper to cease operations.

In the evening, at the start of the protest, it was peaceful but it was soon infiltrated by 400 plain clothes policemen and militia acting as agent provocateurs. They stormed the student dormitories, physically assaulted the students and burned some of the rooms. One student was killed (some report as many as 17 students dead) and 300 injured.

Photos in this exhibition showed police firing tear gas, burned cars, bloody hallways, burnt out rooms and bruises on bodies. These photos were taken by photo-journalist Hasan Sarbakhshian, who has since fled to the USA. Images of thousands of students protesting inside the university and outside in the streets while a line of policemen stood in the background reminded me of the Bersih 2.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur.

During this peaceful rally of NGOs, dubbed Bersih 2.0, demanding free and fair elections for Malaysia, the police and Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) fired volleys of tear gas at the unarmed protesters, arrested 1500 and assaulted many. Incidentally, the Bersih 2.0 rally falls on the same day as the anniversary of the Iran Student Uprising 1999.

I met many Iranian students at the exhibition and asked for their thoughts of the exhibition.

Two students, Sarah and Saloumeh, who are studying at local institutions said, “It is important for us to remember the student uprising and the suppression by our government because they fought for freedom of speech. We want Malaysians to know that we remember the sacrifices of the students in 1999.”

There is an estimated 15,000 Iranian students studying in Malaysia; some say as many as 40,000. Some cannot return to their homeland because of their activism unless there is a change in the government.

One of the organisers of the exhibition, Pooyan, a student and part-time journalist told me, “In 1999, the students fought for freedom and democracy; not for themselves but for all Iranians.”

Hesan, also a student and part-time journalist, who is in Malaysia with his family, brought his young son to the exhibition. He said, “I want my son to know what happened in Iran in 1999. He must know and never forget!”

Viewing the photos in the exhibition gave me the impression of a fearful government who was afraid of losing power. Instead of reviewing the demands of the people and actively working towards a solution, they reacted by violently suppressing the voices of its people. 12 years on, Iran has not changed much. The current president is suspected of having ambitions of owning nuclear weapons while the country slips further backwards. Newsweek magazine placed it at number 79 against number 37 earned by Malaysia in a list of The World’s Best Countries.

The photos also gave me a sort of hope that people will not stay silent and accept their fate. Rather, they will stand up for what they believe in and fight for what is rightfully theirs; freedom of speech.

A few years ago, I read the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. She depicted Iran as one of the most progressive countries in the region until the Shah and the Ayatollah came to power. Suddenly, many things were forbidden; things we take for granted like music and wearing jeans. I can imagine the fear of the Iranians when walking past authorities who could drag you away for wearing make-up under your veil.

Three songs were presented at the launch of the exhibition by Seraji and his friend. The first song entitled “Cage” spoke of the unnatural prison the authorities confined people in and how people struggle to free themselves. The second song was a fusion between Syavash, a famous Iranian musician, and John Lennon entitled “Imagine a World”. The last song was a traditional Kurdish song for martyrs entitled “My Classmate’s Body”. As Ali sang, some of the students present stood in a show of respect while flashing the peace sign with their fingers. Although I could not understand the songs, I could feel the pain and anguish in their performance.

Another student named Hajar who attended the exhibition told me she was at the student uprising in 1999 and saw her friends brutally beaten by the police. The songs presented at the launch stirred up feelings of anger and sadness in remembrance of her friends. “I want to feel happiness as an Iranian but instead, I feel sad,” she said. I was moved as she recounted the time when fellow students and friends who were activists were hauled away by the authorities.

I asked Tirani, one of the organisers, why he gave up his Saturday to organise this photo exhibition for a protest that happened 12 years ago. He told me, “When the student uprising was crushed, we lost what little we had; our freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

He told me stories of how his friend was almost taken to prison by the militia and probably never to be seen again. He also told me stories of the militia arresting people in possession of western literature for fear that “western thinking would corrupt Iran”.

“All over the world, Iranians observe the anniversary of the 1999 Student Uprising annually. We want them to know we remember them and stand with what they stood for. We want them to know we have not forgotten them. We care about our country, we want a bright future for ourselves and our children; where we do not live in fear and can say what we want,” Tirani said.

The photos of the exhibition made me reflect on why man would subdue his fellow man. Are not those in power supposed to look after the interests of the people? Were they not elected by their fellow country men to serve the nation?

I hope Iran will progress into the kind of country the students demanded in 1999 where the people will be free to say and express themselves; for or against their government without fear of retaliation.

There will be a talk on Photojournalism in Iran on Wed 20 Jul, 8pm, and a film screening on Sun 24 Jul, 3pm, of “The Circle”, a film about oppression of women in Iran, by Jafar Panahi who is presently serving a house arrest sentence. Click here for more info.


Pepper is the father of two adorable children named Paprika Lim and Saffron Lim. "Dear Paprika" is a series of letters written for posterity. When Paprika is 20 years old, he will be 61. He prefers to...

3 replies on “We lost what little we had”

  1. well,for me,whether it's iran or malaysia or malawi or tajikistan or whatever,if there is injustice,we should address it and try to confront it in order to correct it. my friends, evil will prevail if good men do nothing. the idea is not about which situation or which etnicity or which culture,the idea is OPPOSING AGAINST INJUSTICE EVEN IF IT CLULD END YOUR LIFE>

  2. Pepper Lim,
    It is very surprising that you could not differentiate between Iran and Malaysia.
    Some people like to write for the sake of writing.
    The Opposition Oppose Whatever for the Sake of Opposing.

  3. Interesting piece but I don't think it is instructive or accurate to compare our circumstances with those of Iran or anywhere else. The solutions that Malaysians should provide to our very Malaysian problems must be sui generis and not inspired by the actions of others who faced completely different obstacles. There has been a very dangerous tendency to draw credence for movements by comparing them to this revolution or that. Malaysians' actions must be justifiable in and of themselves, not because they happen to resemble those of the French youth in '68, the Czechs in the '89 or the Egyptians a few months ago.

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