Bangladesh: Since independence, just failure

WILLIAM BORDERS, The New York Times (November 9, 1975)

At a high‐level White House meeting nearly four years ago, Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson, trying to explain to his colleagues what a grim future faced Bangladesh, described the new nation as an “international basket case.”

Since then, life in Bangladesh has worsened: And there is no sign that the poor land’s latest convulsion, a virtual military takeover of the Government last week, will bring any improvement to the lives of its people, most of whom have still remained illiterate, impoverished and ill‐fed.

With a population of 75 million, crowded together in swampy land smaller than New England, Bangladesh is by many international economic standards, the least promising country in the world. Because of the floods that inundated large areas every summer, because the country cannot feed its population without huge amounts of aid, and because it has 10,000 more people every day than it had the day before, some Bangladesh leaders have despaired of ever governing effectively.

Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic father of the nation, tried, with less and less success. As his regime bogged down in nepotism and corruption, the public’s enchantment with him waned, and he was finally killed in a coup d’etat.

Khondakar Moshtaque Ahmed, who had been one of Sheik Mujib’s confreres in the long and bloody struggle for independence from Pakistan, then became President. But now is gone too and Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman has moved suddenly to the fore.

But whether he can find solutions to the country’s almost overwhelming difficulties is anyone’s guess. One knowledgeable former resident of Dacca says: “As is usually the case in matters relating to Bangladesh, there is very little reason to be hopeful.”

The Army’s Chances

With military ranks being traded back and forth, and officers in and out of jail, discipline within the army poor, and few people expect political stability to flow from the army’s ascent to power.

Out in the marshy countryside of Bangladesh, armed gangs are still at large, with tons of weapons and ammunition available since the war of independence in 1971. Political violence is commonplace; some reports put the number of political murders in the last few years at several thousand.

The short‐lived Government of President Moshtaque Ahmed arrested 1,000 people for illegal possession of firearms. But, according to the new Government, one of the last things that the former President’s military protectors did before they fled the country was murder, several high-ranking political prisoners.

Economically, Sheik Mujib left the country in calamitous condition, with some retail prices increasing at a rate several hundred percent a year. Because of corruption and mismanagement, the jute industry, which earns almost all of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange, has been operating below capacity. This year, it is also suffering from the world’s oversupply of jute, a tough fiber used in burlap and twine.

The recent changes in Government have affected the country’s foreign relations. While in office, President Moshtaque Ahmed showed signs of moving the country out the political orbit of India, the powerful neighbor that was the Mujib Government’s closest ally.

It is too early to tell whether that move will continue be reversed, but India wasted no time in officially expressing its “great shock” at the jail killings, a sentiment that put it on the same side as the generals then in control Dacca.

President Moshtaque Ahmed had also made friendly overtures toward the Pakistanis, the Bengalis’ former countrymen. Dacca had agreed to establish diplomatic relations with them, and possibly trade and telecommunications links as well. But any move by the newest Government to elevate the memory of Sheik Mujib would likely be a move away from the Pakistanis.

Among the major powers, China was delighted with the Moshtaque Ahmed Government, and the Soviet Union was cautious about it.

One country that has shown no particular sign that its relations with Dacca have been changed one way or the other by the events of the past few months is the United States. It has given Bangladesh nearly $1‐billion in aid since independence and, as one American official put “We’ll probably keep on giving, because the problems we are trying to help solve remain so formidable.”


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