A Tragedy for Bangladesh

The Times Editorial (June 01, 1981)

The killing of President Zia-ur Rahman is a shattering blow to peace and good government in Bangladesh, likely to throw the country into despair at the unending military rivalry from which the country has suffered from its birth. Nothing that is known of the rebel leadership in Chittagong promises any popular support for its action. Personal rivalry as much as some imagined national purpose seems to have inspired General Manzur’s brutal plot. That in turn is likely to reawaken past vendettas which President Zia might have hoped had lost their edge. For six years he had coaxed the country back to order and decency giving hope to its ninety million people. Whatever criticisms could be made of his rule were as nothing to such benefits.

Shaikh Mujib, the country’s nationalist leader, had established the Awami League which promised to carry the people into a promised land of independence after the bloody birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The coup of 1975, in which all members of Shaikh Mujib’s family who could be found were indiscriminately slaughtered, was carried out by a group of young army officers in protest at the corruption in which Shaikh Mujib’s following had sunk and at the lawlessness in the country with which the Awami League maintained its power by its own. strong-arm force. There was much justice in the charges but little hope for the country in the vindictiveness displayed. The wounds were deep and have never healed. After two further coups — also exclusively military in origin — General Zia took power as a military ruler. 

His record in office had earned him respect and had given the country a peace it had not before enjoyed. He promised to restore parliamentary government and, like military rulers in other Asian countries, founded his own party to fight the elections. Winning a majority by methods that were not discreditable, given the character of the country, President Zia resolved to fulfill his promise to institute effective civilian government. He was even able to attract opposition politicians into his service. But however much peace spread through the countryside, or fortune brought good harvests undamaged by the floods that had so often ruined them, political and military rivalries continued to sap his rule. Over his shoulder he was always aware of the power of the gun. 

The military part in the birth of Bangladesh, not to mention the Bengali propensity to politics — “take three Bengalis and you have the makings of four political parties” is the common jibe — has politicised the army and set going rivalries that have never gone off the boil. There has been more than one attempt at a coup to overthrow President Zia. in 1977, and again in June last year when he was on a visit to Britain. Hitherto his skill in fending off rivals and diverting politically ambitious officers has enabled him to give the country a fair wind in helping itself, in a world where help for a country so poor in skills and resources as Bangladesh was exhausting even the most charitable of aid-givers. 

Externally President Zia’s death opens up as many doubts as it does internally. India’s part as midwife to the breakaway Bengali state meant that Shaikh Mujib and his Awami League were beholden to India and ready to cooperate with New Delhi. As a new leader after 1975 President Zia not only took Bangladesh into a newfound independence from both India and Pakistan but did it prudently and unemotionally, to the point where an acceptable neighbourly relationship with Mrs Gandhi smoothed over the rancour following Shaikh Mujib’s assassination. With the recent return from exile in New Delhi of Mrs Hasina Wazid, a daughter of Shaikh Mujib, and her reported arrest over the weekend, Indian concern at the outcome of the current turbulence will naturally grow. So will conflicts of every kind.

With all news sources cut, it is impossible to forecast whether President Zia’s government will be able to reestablish effective power throughout the country or, indeed, what political policies the rebel leaders believe themselves to be fighting for. Disorder and the loss of control could last for some time. Unhappily the answers to all these questions lie in military action or the threat of it. The divided armed forces may become even more splintered. In face of this, what hope is there that such power can be used to “mobilize and motivate” these ninety million peasants, as President Zia sought to do and was in good measure bringing about despite the enormous difficulties? His death is a tragic blow. Nothing but crippling conflicts can follow it. In power, he had been determined to restore civilian government but army resistance could not be overcome. After a decade Bangladesh may be back at the starting line.

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