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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
Published in The Star Malaysia on May 8, 2000. (www.thestar.com.my)