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In the modern history of East Asia, college students have played a leading role in pushing for political reform and challenging authoritarian regimes. Those regimes, of course, have ways to keep students in line.
From Kuala Lumpur, NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of one student activist and his fight to abolish a 40-year-old law that bars Malaysian college students from participating in politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Reformasi, or reform, chants the crowd of thousands rallying outside Malaysia's high court. It's January 9th and the crowds are awaiting the verdict in the trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The government had charged him with sodomy, his supporters believe, in an attempt to end his political career.
ADAM ADLI: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Students, sons of fishermen and farmers, rise up, shouts a mop-haired college student in a Beatles T-shirt. He's a rising political star named Adam Adli.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
KUHN: Just as he's speaking, news comes that Anwar has unexpectedly been acquitted of the sodomy charges. The crowd erupts in celebration.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
KUHN: Adam has made headlines by demanding the abolition of the University and University Colleges Act. That act bans students from joining or even speaking in support of political parties. Adam slams the act as an attempt by the education authorities to stifle free speech and impose conformity on students.
ADLI: They centralize everything. They even centralize how you think, how you learn. So the graduates will become people with no passion, people with no interest in social and political issues.
KUHN: The act was born out of Malaysia's race riots of 1969. Student protests followed, led by Anwar Ibrahim, who was then a student firebrand. The protests shook the government which responded by drafting the Universities Act in 1971.
University of Malaya political economist Terence Gomez says the government fears Adam Adli now, much as it feared Anwar Ibrahim four decades ago
PROFESSOR TERENCE GOMEZ: The Adli case is a case of the spark that has ignited a fire. And the government is extremely worried that this movement is going to spread and become a movement that can overthrow this government.
KUHN: Gomez says the current government has failed to deliver on its promise of democratic reforms. Recent protests against laws which limits civil liberties, such as the Internal Security Act of 1960, have produced what critics say are mostly cosmetic changes.
Gomez argues that by limiting academic freedom, the Universities Act has hurt Malaysian higher education. This has sent disaffected youth flocking to the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar has pledged to oust the current government in elections expected this year.
GOMEZ: The youth are being left behind because of public policies. Look at the kind of education that they're getting. They are now unemployable because of the poor quality of education that they're getting. They've got a lot to be upset about.
KUHN: Hours after the High Court acquitted Anwar Ibrahim, university authorities suspended Adam Adli for three semesters. His offense: Pulling down a picture of Prime Minister Najib Razak during a protest march. The authorities declined to be interviewed.
Adam emerges from the school's gates to find fellow students hemmed in by police with shields and truncheons.
ADLI: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: The struggle is not mine alone, he tells his classmates, we're all in this together.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
KUHN: Law student Abdullah Aziz agrees. He says that Adam and other students are paying a high price just for exercising their legal rights.
ABDULLAH AZIZ: The ruling party labeled us as the opposition. We don't want that kind of label. We are not opposition. We are not paid by any political party to be in politics. We are students, we have our own idealism and that is what we are fighting for.
KUHN: Adam Adli is visibly shaken by his punishment but still defiant.
ADLI: This is so unconstitutional. Where is the students' right? Where's the human right in here? They say I give a bad image to the university and also brought chaos to the country.
KUHN: In a quiet moment before his hearing, though, Adam confided that he's already gotten offers from other universities willing to take him in if he's expelled. He says he's content to be a student activist. And he shudders at the idea of a career in the stuffy, stodgy arena of elite politics.
ADLI: It's so not for young people like me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ADLI: You see, I'd rather be Che Guevara than Fidel Castro.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Kuala Lumpur.
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