FRED BRUNING, Newsweek (June 8, 1981)
Several times a week President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh liked to board a government helicopter and hopscotch across his impoverished country spreading a gospel of hard work and self-help. Last Friday his schedule called for a stopover in the steamy port city of Chittagong, where the Presidential party would rest in a state-owned bungalow. While Rahman slept, a death squad slipped by guards and, in the pre-dawn hours, murdered the 45-year-old leader and several of his aides. Minutes later, a voice on the local radio station announced to early risers: “A new government has assumed charge of Bangladesh.”
In an emotional broadcast to the nation several hours later, Vice President Abdus Sattar acknowledged Rahman’s death—but denied that the government had fallen. His voice breaking, Sattar said the security of Bangladesh was being threatened by “internal disturbances” and begged citizens to remain calm. Dacca officials quickly imposed a curfew and the Vice President declared a state of emergency. Government leaders blamed Rahman’s assassination on a group of army “miscreants” led by Maj. Gen. Abul Manzur, commander of the Chittagong garrison and a known enemy of Rahman. Authorities said other elements of Bangladesh’s armed forces had not joined the insurrection and ordered Manzur and his men to surrender “immediately.”
Split: The antagonism between Rahman and Manzur broke into the open a month ago. Once close allies who fought side by side in the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, the two men split over government policies toward India. For weeks, Dacca and New Delhi have been squabbling about ownership of a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal, and Manzur apparently wanted to abrogate the “friendship” treaty between the two countries. Rahman resisted, but his problems deepened when Hasina Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh’s assassinated first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ended her six-year exile. She returned to a tumultuous greeting from supporters in the Awami League, the nation’s major opposition party, and appeared to be a potential threat to Rahman’s hold on power. Two weeks ago, Rahman warned the executive council of his ruling Bangladesh National Party that Awami League members were out “to create a law-and-order situation with the objective of restoring the one-party system again.”
To silence criticism of his own autocratic style of government, Rahman recently purged the National Party of so-called “anti-people” elements and sacked more than 50 party members. He also reshuffled the military—sending Manzur from Dacca to Chittagong. Despite his political opposition, Rahman was moving ahead on an ambitious nine-teen-point economic and political recovery program.
Last year, for the first time in its history, Bangladesh exported grain and even asked foreign governments to delay food aid. The “benevolent dictator,” who ruled for four and a half years, said he wanted to speed up the day when his country of 90 million would double food production, cut illiteracy and bring its birthrate under control. It was to promote these programs that he travelled last week to Chittagong—a city of special significance for the President. Ten years ago, an obscure army officer, Ziaur Rahman helped take over the city’s radio station, grabbed a microphone and became the first person to declare the independence of Bangladesh.