Bangladesh Recovers calm after political upheaval

William Borders, New York Times (December 7, 1975)

One month after the latest political convulsion in this critically poor country, calm has returned to its daily life as the ruling military junta moves toward relaxing its strict control.

In the overcrowded marshy countryside, where a relatively good rice harvest is just getting underway, the armed gangs that were spreading terror have been subdued, at least for the moment.

Here in the capital, most of the army tanks have moved out of sight, the shops are open and the mood is brisk. Hundreds of bicycle rickshaws dart around the rutted streets, their passengers shielded from the warm sunshine by umbrellas flowered in red and blue and yellow.

But with a wariness, developed by the bloody changes of the government of the last four months, many people are reluctant to express any confidence.

‘It’s Hard to Stop’

“The trouble with a military coup d’état is that once you start, it’s hard to stop,” a troubled official said after he had closed the door to make sure that no one else could hear.

Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the army chief who took control of the country after an internal power struggle during the first week of November, is continuing his effort at least to appear to share power and to move toward civilian rule.

His government has appointed the fifth and sixth civilian members of its Council of Advisors, a kind of cabinet that was created last week. The council also includes General Ziaur Rahman and two other officers in his junta, the heads of the air force and the navy.

The civilian members of the Council, most of whom are older, nonpolitical figures from such fields as education and medicine, have divided up some of the portfolios from the political cabinet, which was suspended last month along with Parliament. Nominally, they are to help govern together with the new President, former Chief Justice, Abu Sadat Mohammed Sayem.

The Undoubted Strongman

But General Ziaur Rahman not only has the power that comes with being backed by the army, but he also has retained control of internal security, finance and information. No one here doubts that he is the strongman, though perhaps a reluctant one.

“Ours is a completely nonparty and nonpolitical Government, and the armed forces are absolutely neutral,” the general said recently. “Our aim is to reestablish democracy in the country through free and fair elections.”

Many people here consider that to be an elusive goal in what is, by some standards, the poorest country in the world. Bangladesh has 76 million people in 55,000 square miles and is as crowded as the 148 continental United States would be if they contained the entire population of the world.

Most of the people here are illiterate and underfed, living close to desperation, and every day there are 10,000 more people than there were the day before.

“People like us care more about rice than about the government,” said an old man squatting behind a mountain of brightly colored beans in one of Dacca’s several busy marketplaces. “If there is rice and we can buy it, we are happy.”

In contrast to last fall, when thousands of people were starving to death here, rice is in rather good supply now. Partly because of Government policy partly because the important monsoon rains were good this summer, rice costs only 10 cents a pound, less than half the price it reached during the final days of the corrupt and often inept government of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who was killed in a coup on August 15.

The supply and low cost of rice, in the opinion of some people here, constitute a principal reason that the anti‐Government military units still roaming northern sections of the country have apparently won no widespread public support.

‘The Biggest Enemies’

Dissidents, many still loyal to the memory of Sheik Mujib, the father of the country, include regular troops who have deserted, and irregular, paramilitary groups that have been underground for some time. They are armed with weapons around the country since the war in which Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan four years ago.

Those small, private armies, with their personal loyalties to local leaders, were also a big problem during the days of Sheik Mujib. During his three years in office, there were several thousand politically inspired killings.

According to diplomatic sources, some Government leaders are also working behind the scenes to calm ancient religious tensions here and to reassure the Hindu minority.

Widespread violence against the Hindus, who are 14 percent of the population in this predominantly Moslem country, could produce a hostile reaction from India, which is already displeased over having lost the ally it used to have here in Sheik Mujib.

So far, there is no indication that India is involved overtly in any significant military operation here, and the Dacca Government has made no specific charges. But interference from the huge neighbor that almost completely surrounds Bangladesh is a constant concern, according to sources close to Government leaders.

PDF version of the article can be found here: Bangladesh Recovers calk after political Upheaval


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