A rush of blood leaves Bangladesh on the brink

John Cunningham, The Guardian (June 1, 1981)

President Ziaur Rahman’s luck fatally ran out in a hail of bullets in the government rest house just before dawn on Saturday. The province on the East flank of Bangladesh which takes its name from the port city he was visiting, mocks the imprint of national stability which the strongman had maintained for five years. 

Ziaur invariably spent two or three days of every week visiting bits of his people-packed country, traversed by wide sluggish rivers, trying to make it cohere. The repeated exhortations on these tours that villagers should dig more canals, plant two crops instead of three, beget fewer babies had some effect on the fortunes of a country trying to pick itself up from the threshing floor of failed economics. 

They earned for the leader who disguised his military caste under business suits and Shangiung bush shirts, but who revealed it in his inflexibility and personal reticence, accolades of dynamism and incorruptibility. In slothful, fractious Bangladesh, even his enemies willingly conceded that. 

It was the same driving force which took him again and again to Chittagong, as though, by being there, he could will the people to self-sufficiency. 

Over most of the country, Ziaur could claim some success: this year, for the first time since independence achieved in 1971 after a crippling war with Pakistan, there was enough rice to repay oil debts to Arab states and food loans from India. By coincidence, the country’s own luck has held for the last five years: famine and flood have been kept at bay. But in Chittagong province the essential unruliness of Bangladesh coagulated: the presidential writ never ran smoothly there. 

Tribesmen In the hill tracts bordering Burma and India have for decades been demanding autonomy on ethnic grounds. The pattern of sporadic guerrilla warfare turned to a massacre at the end of last year with allegations that Ziaur’s army had slaughtered 8,000 people. Three years before, 200,000 Moslem refugees streamed into the province from Buddhist Burma, claiming they had been harassed.

Both problems hedged in a country no bigger than England and Wales with a population of almost 90 millions. Both made Chittagong the most intractable province. Ziaur’s frequent attention to it involved another threat: its remoteness from the capital. Dacca made it a seething ground for military discontent.

The coup which emanate from there and killed Ziaur was the last of a series: the others he survived by canniness and brutal revenge – through court-martial, it is one of Ziaur’s brother officers, who came up through the Pakistan Army in the mid-fifties and who attempted to seize the time in the Liberation War, who now holds his body hostage and is so far refusing to hand it over to the Deputy President. 

It is ironic to the career of a military man who, though casting off his rank and setting up the political party which he headed — the Bangladesh National Party — remained substantially a prisoner of the army. If, as a consequence, fear was never out of his mind — and death plots never restricted his activities — nor was the matter of how satisfactorily to restore full power to a civilian government. It was always hard to accept that a leader who saw his ubiquity as essential had much faith in democracy.

What Ziaur gradually offered Bangladesh was a slow withdrawal of martial law, and the reassembling of a one chamber parliament in which the party — the BNP — he created from the top down, rather than in response to grass-roots enthusiasm, has a majority. 

The issues have for impoverished years been those of how the country can survive economically, with its bulging birthrate and growing landlessness among the peasants. Ziaur was slowly reminding a society which readily accepted all the aid the world could give that far a brief recent moment, its self-image had been rather better: that of 2 nations emerging into independence. 

Such threats as there were from political rivals, he always defused; they were probably less., anyway than the danger behind his back in the army. Among the opposition units, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League has never recovered the heady days before its leader’s murder. It remains to be seen if the shock waves of Ziaur’s own death revive the fortunes of the League, for – Mujib’s daughter has just returned from six years of self-imposed exile in India and is bent on building up the patty — it has some 40 seats — and to track down her father’s killers. 

The near future hinges on whether Bangladesh without Ziaur will become so volatile in its loyalties that control of the country could be wrested successfully either by the army rebels in Chittagong or by the Left. 

If there is a switch to movements and parties opposed to Ziaur’s authoritarian regime — and inside and outside parliament, such groups are fragmented – it will be a signal that the landless, and the merely poor, are angry with the slowness and the scope of the reforms which have been set in train. If they do collect some of their old fury, as they did during the Liberation War, it will go hard for the BNP, whose structure is too artificial to sustain any grassroots drive for a more equal distribution of the country’s resources. And if the BNP goes, Ziaur’s monument will prove very brittle indeed.


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