Monday, May 08, 2000

Death of an Activist

by Ong Ju Lin

“He was totally, totally innocent and his death was an abosolutely unforgivable murder.”
Jose Ramos Horta, independence deputy leader of East Timor

Unlike most Malaysians who recently became familiar with East Timor’s long and tragic struggle for independence, one young man, Kamal Bhamadhaj, worked tirelessly from 1989 until his death in 1991to raise international support and awareness for the East Timorese. He was killed by the Indonesian military on Nov 12, 1991, because he had become too visible and activist. These series of articles trace the life of this remarkable young man whose life and death became an award-winning documentary and explain why hardly anyone in this country has heard of him.

NINETEEN-ninety-one was an eventful year. Problems in Bosnia were brewing. The Israelis were settling on the Gaza strip and the West Bank in greater concentration, displacing the Palestinians from their land. Apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa.

In all three cases, Malaysia responded with strong statements in support of the oppressed and displaced. But few Malaysians were aware of the extent of fear, violence and starvation wrought on a people since 1975 on an island much closer to home. That was the year Indonesia invaded East Timor. In the years that followed, the Timorese were subjected to rape, torture, arbitrary arrests (leading to many disappearing without a trace) and widespread starvation.

In 1991, too, Indonesian soldiers fired bullets at a crowd of 2,000 unarmed Timorese protestors demonstrating for an end to military brutalities and demanding for independence. In what has become known as the Dili Cemetery Massacre, 271 people were killed. One of them was a Malaysian. His name was Kamal Ahmed Bamadhaj.

Shortly after his death, an Utusan Malaysia report entitled Kamal Ahmed Bamadhaj, "He Blew the Fire of Love of Humanity" and printed an excerpt from his diary. But what was very strange was that the report made no mention of where he was killed, merely saying vaguely that it was "in a territory in a region in the world."

Such was the secrecy that enveloped Kamal's death and the slaughter of 270 East Timorese on Nov 12, 1991, in vast contrast to the ample coverage given by the local media to affairs of nations as far as Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

In recounting the events after the Dili Massacre, Kamal's sister, Nadiah, 31, says: ``Nothing could be a clearer (indication) of Asean complicity than the local media's treatment of the killings."

For fear of angering Indonesia, the media downplayed Kamal's death and the massacre. As a member of Asean, Malaysia abides by the principle of non-interference that means a member country does not interfere in the domestic affairs of another member country. Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 was considered the domestic affair of Indonesia.

Reports of torture and other atrocities committed against the Timorese were muted in Asean's media. In the name of non-interference, Asean leaders stood in solidarity with the Suharto regime as far as East Timor was concerned even when a Malaysian became a casualty of the Indonesian military.

Kamal was barely 21 when he died. His death was, as East Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta describes it, "(an) absolutely unforgivable murder."

Kamal, who had been living in Sydney, Australia, in 1991 was planning to go to Dili to act as an interpreter for an Australian aid worker, Bob Muntz, when word got around that Ramos Horta was looking for someone to act as a courier.

Ramos Horta wanted to send information to the East Timorese resistance concerning the itinerary of the visit of the United Nations/Portugal Delegation to East Timor.

Kamal had been involved in the resistance movement two years before and wanted to help by bringing world attention to the oppression and human rights abuses in East Timor. He arrived in Dili on Oct 24, 1991, several days ahead of the delegation's expected arrival. But on Nov 3, word went out that the visit had been cancelled. If they had come, the Portuguese would have been the first foreign delegation allowed into the troubled territory since Indonesia's annexation 16 years before.

"Hearts sank. People cannot believe it. In the past month, Timorese have been taking extraordinary risks organising themselves in anticipation of the delegation, wrote Kamal in his diary. "They claim that any risk they took was worth it because the visit will offer them so much hope. But now the visit is off and the Timorese are once again in the all too familiar position of being defenceless from arbitrary arrest, maltreatment or even death."

These were to be Kamal's last words in his diary. In his final conversation with Bibi Langker, his Australian girlfriend, Kamal had sounded different that morning. "He was totally relaxed and being silly. It was unlike his earlier conversations where he sounded totally freaked out and tensed," says Langker in the New Zealand-made documentary, Punitive Damage, which recounts Kamal's death and his mother's four-year battle to bring his killer to justice.

On the morning of Nov 12, 1991, Kamal set off to join demonstrators in commemorating the killing of 16-year-old Sebastiao Gomes who was shot on Oct 28 by Indonesian soldiers who attacked a church, where Gomes and several youths were staying. The commemoration mass swelled to several thousand people and, as they marched in protest from the church to the Santa Cruz cemetery where Gomes was buried, they unfurled banners calling for independence and a stop to the atrocities committed against the Timorese people.

Upon reaching the cemetery, according to the testimony of eye-witness Allan Nairn, an American journalist, truckloads of armed soldiers descended from their vehicles in an orderly fashion, marched up into the crowd and, without warning, started shooting. The terrifying scene of people falling on top of each other trying to escape through the main exit of the cemetery was vividly caught by British filmmaker Max Stahl in his documentary, In Cold Blood.

The high walls of the cemetery prevented many from escaping. In one scene, the camera captured a man dying from gunshot wounds, his head cradled by his friend. Kamal was shot moments later, outside the cemetery.

"Kamal did not die for nothing. It's intriguing that years after his death, he is still remembered in different ways," says his father, Ahmed. His death spurred those who knew him to work towards East Timor's peace in their own ways.

To deal with her grief, his sister Nadiah, for instance, took to learning about Kamal's activism in South-East Asia and human rights issues. And what she learnt, she shared with others. Nadiah went on to write on East Timor and publish Kamal's diaries and letters in the book, Aksi Write(Rhino Press), in 1997. She is currently working on the second edition to be published some time in June this year.

Recounting the events after Kamal's death, Nadiah says: "I did not know that world leaders were turning a blind eye to such atrocities in East Timor. I guess that knowledge is the most beneficial thing that came out of Kamal's death for me. But it is too terrible a price to pay for that knowledge."

In 1994, Kamal's mother, Helen Todd, aided by the US Center for Constitutional Rights, sued the Indonesian army's regional commander, General Sintong Panjaitan, holding him responsible for her son's death and the deaths of the 270 others.

After the massacre, in response to international outrage, the Indonesian Government sent Panjaitan and another commander to Harvard University in Boston to study English as "punishment''. Using a little-known 200-year-old US law which allowed human rights violators to be tried wherever they were found, Todd sued for compensatory and punitive damages.

Panjaitan, upon receiving his summons, immediately fled back to Indonesia. The suit, however, continued and the US court eventually awarded Todd and Kamal's estate a total of US$22mil (RM83.6mil). Panjaitan refused to acknowledge the court's jurisdiction, calling the suit a "joke''.

Todd gave countless interviews to the international media and played a crucial role in the documentary, Punitive Damage. Her tireless work contributed to a greater awareness of what actually happened in East Timor during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation and the events on that fateful day in November 1991.

But her collaboration with the filmmakers was her last "public appearance'', as she put it when contacted for this article. "It was very painful doing the film. I don't want to play the grieving mother anymore,'' she said, in turning down our request for an interview.

Kamal's friends in the students' organisation, Network of Overseas Student Collectives (Nosca) in Australia, pledged to work in their own capacities until East Timor was independent. Elisabeth Wong, a Malaysian who is now coordinating the collection of clothes and food to be sent to East Timor says: "Kamal's death changed us. We were no longer a bunch of idealists. We were suddenly faced with the reality that our friend, whom we considered a family member, died in the cause of his activism. It made our struggles more real and we became more committed to the cause."

In 1996, Wong and former Nosca members, with the support of other organisations, organised the Apcet II (Asia-Pacific Coalition on East Timor) conference to raise awareness on East Timor issues and to find a peaceful solution to the struggle.The conference, however, was disrupted by UMNO Youth (the ruling party's youth wing) members and the organisers detained. The incident made it crystal clear that the Malaysian Government was determined to silence any attempts by citizens' groups to bring up the issue of East Timor or of Kamal's death.

The fall of Suharto in 1998, which paved the way for East Timor's independence, and the ensuing excitement of rebuilding have overshadowed old horrors. But the memories of Kamal remain. He is remembered in quiet ways by people who may or may not have known him when he was alive.

"Months after he was buried, there were still notes, flowers, letters, on his grave,'' says Ahmed who visits his son's grave in Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, regularly to offer prayers. "I was told by the gatekeeper that even now someone would come, sit for an hour, and then another couple would come, sit and weep together. People remember him.

"Retracing Kamal's travels in Indonesia a few years after he was killed, Wong recalls that villagers whom Kamal met along the way still remembered him. "When I told them that Kamal had been killed, they wept openly."

"Kamal did what he did, not because of religious affiliations or regional politics or for any kind of fame. Observes Ahmed: "It was something very simple, very basic: He loved people, and their suffering tormented him. He did what he could for a forgotten people."

To date, the Malaysian Government has yet to acknowledge, much less put up any protest in recognition of, that one of its citizens was wrongfully killed by Indonesia under the Suharto regime.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, however, is pursuing the case and Todd has said any money she receives from the damages would be donated to families of the victims of the Dili Massacre.

Sintong Panjaitan, who joined the Indonesian public service, rose to become an adviser to President B.J. Habibie. Attempts to locate him came to naught. Thus far, he has not been brought to answer for his crimes.

Published in The Star Malaysia on May 8, 2000. (