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The untimely death of Kamal Bamadhaj

The Nation - November 12, 1997

Bangkok – Today is the sixth anniversary of the Dili massacre in East Timor when an estimated 271 people were gunned down in cold blood by Indonesian troops. Among the dead was a young Malaysian student. The Nation's Steven Gan tells his story.

It was November 3, 1991. In Dili, Malaysian student Kamal Bamadhaj, alone in his hotel room, jotted the following notes in his diary.

"It has been a tense past two weeks in East Timor. A kind of lull before the storm has prevailed as Timorese prepare themselves for the visit of the Portuguese parliamentary delegation scheduled to have started tomorrow.

"In the past month or so, Timorese have been taking extraordinary risks organising among themselves in anticipation of the delegation. They claim that any risk they took was worth it because the visit offered them so much hope. And they are banking on placing themselves on a security list held by the Portuguese that would guarantee them – under UN agreements – freedom from persecution if they spoke up.

"But now that 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."

Those words contained an eerie premonition. Apparently, Kamal had portentously predicted the "storm" that was to come. Nine days later, an estimated 271 people were massacred in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. Kamal was among those killed.

Kamal was a first-year political science student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, majoring in Asian history and politics when I met him. He struck me as a person who cared deeply about the iniquities of our world and showed great concern for those less fortunate than himself. My first impression of him proved me right. Soon he took a keen interest in the plight of the people in East Timor.

East Timor, a small island in the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago, declared independence from Portugal on Nov 28, 1975, after almost 300 years of colonialism. Nine days later, it was invaded by Indonesia.

The invasion was condemned by the UN Security Council. However, UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops and that East Timorese be given the right to self-determination were ignored. Some 200,000 East Timorese, estimated to be around one-third of the population, have died as a result of the invasion.

Kamal went to East Timor in October 1991 to observe the occupied territory at its most important time – the long-awaited visit by a parliamentary delegation from Portugal. The visit was to bring an unprecedented 70 international observers to East Timor. But the visit was abruptly cancelled when Indonesia rejected the inclusion of an Australian journalist in the delegation.

The cancellation disappointed many East Timorese. There had been high hopes that the visit would draw world attention to their plight. And with it shelved, there was fear that a military crackdown was imminent.

"The indefinite delay [of the visit] gives the Indonesian military the perfect opportunity to eliminate all those East Timorese who had exposed their identity while preparing for the visit," Kamal wrote.

A week after the Portuguese visit was called off, a memorial service was held for Sebastian Gomez Rangel, an East Timorese youth killed by Indonesian soldiers in the grounds of Motael church. Kamal and a few foreigners decided to attend the memorial. He believed the foreign presence might help restrain the military from attacking the crowd. He was dead wrong.

Memorial procession

The memorial procession from Motael church to the Santa Cruz cemetery began early on the morning of Nov 12. During the procession, banners supporting Fretilin, the independence movement, were unfurled. Such an outright call for independence by a crowd of thousands had never been dared before. And to the Indonesians, it was a provocation which the military could not tolerate.

The crowd came to a halt when the peaceful procession reached Santa Cruz cemetery. Events then turned ugly.

A military truck roared up and soldiers disembarked. They lined up facing the memorial congregation about 100 metres away. Then they marched forward, raised their rifles and shot into the crowd. The shooting lasted for some 10 minutes.

When the sound of gunfire finally ceased, hundreds of bodies littered the cemetery – some dead, others bleeding profusely. It was later estimated that 271 people were killed.

Kamal was found half a kilometre from where the massacre took place. He had been hit on the right side of his chest. Few knew what happened to him.

But eyewitnesses said Kamal had been taking photos outside the cemetery gate before the shootings. He, however, was able to escape unhurt and was on his way back to his hotel on a deserted track.

There, he had the misfortune of being stopped by a military truck. The Indonesians could have mistaken him for an East Timorese. Then, perhaps not. Kamal had his Malaysian passport with him.

The soldiers confiscated his camera, and an officer shot Kamal point blank, leaving him to die by the side of the road.

Kamal was found by Anton Marti, an official of the International Red Cross. He was still conscious but weak, and desperately waving his passport – a document which had obviously failed to protect his life. Marti attempted to drive him to Dili General Hospital but was immediately stopped by a military roadblock.

Although the car had Red Cross markings, the soldiers threatened to shoot him. So Marti turned back and headed to another hospital. However, he was again stopped near a police station. Both Marti and Kamal were directed into the police compound. Again Marti explained Kamal's condition but he was prevented from continuing, or even getting out of the car.

After a long wait, he was allowed to drive to a military hospital. The delay was fatal. By the time Kamal was admitted to the hospital, he was unconscious.

He died 20 minutes later. He, along with other massacre victims, were later buried in a mass grave.

Kamal's death was symptomatic of the harsh reality of life in East Timor. He recorded his final thoughts in a diary which he left behind.

"Whether total genocide occurs in East Timor or not depends not only on the remarkably powerful will of the East Timorese people, but also on the will of humanity – of us all," he wrote. It was his last political essay.

That "will of humanity" has finally catapulted the issue of East Timor back into the front burner of international diplomacy.

The 1996 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timorese – Bishop of Dili Carlos Ximenes Bello and exiled resistance spokesperson Jose Ramos-Horta – has added a new sense of urgency to the issue.

The East Timorese resistance movement has mooted a peace proposal – autonomy in the short term and a referendum to determine its own future after five or 10 years.

Unruly mob

Kamal was not the only Southeast Asian to show solidarity with the people in East Timor.

In May 1994, others followed him when the first Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (Apcet) was held in Manila, an event which dramatically challenged the "non-intervention" policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

I had promised Kamal's father that I would write about his son come the anniversary of his death each year to keep his memories alive. And I have done that without fail over the years. The only exception was last year.

That was when a government-organised mob from the ruling parties' youth wings, calling themselves the Malaysian People's Action Front, stormed into the Asia Hotel and went on a rampage in a bid to stop the Second Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (Apcet II) on Nov 9 in Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian government had earlier expressed its disapproval of the conference. But to hire a mob to physically stop a legal and private meeting is a clear transgression of the rule of law.

The mob destroyed hotel property, hurled verbal threats and manhandled participants.

It wasn't until an hour later that the police arrived to restore order. The participants may have thought that their nightmare was over. It was, however, only the beginning. While the foreign participants were immediately deported, the rest were arrested. Not even journalists were spared, myself included.

I finally walked out of the prison five days later. I did eventually file a story on Kamal, and on my arrest, for the newspaper I worked for then. It, however, did not appear – obviously a victim of self-censorship in the Malaysian media.

Kamal was fond of wearing a T-shirt produced by the Asian Students Association, a regional student organisation. It said, "I'm a witness to the suffering of my people. And I'll bear witness to their liberation."

Kamal did not live to witness the liberation of the East Timor people. But a day when East Timor is free will surely come.

In November 1994 – a week before the third anniversary of Kamal's death – a US federal court which heard a lawsuit brought by Kamal's mother, Halinah Todd, ordered former Indonesian general Sintong Panjaitan who headed the military during the Dili massacre to pay US$14 million in damages. On hearing the news, Panjaitan laughed and dismissed the court decision as "a joke".

Kamal was 20 when he died. He is dearly missed by those who knew and loved him. And for them, Kamal's death – and that of hundreds of others in the Dili massacre – is definitely not a joke.