Bangladesh’s Soft‐Spoken but Strict President

One hot, sultry evening two years ago, shortly after he had taken over as the military ruler of Bangladesh, Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman was sitting in the living room of his white‐stone bungalow here explaining the country’s international relations. When a reporter raised the possibility of a regional alliance in southern Asia, General Zia paused for a moment and said “Well I had never quite thought of that before.” He then took out a little notebook and wrote down the idea, promising to consider it.

Whether or not the gesture was sincere, it was typical of the style of the 42-year-old general, a soft‐spoken, thoughtful man who projects a quiet humility that belies the stern authoritarianism of his martial law regime.

“We have so much to learn in Bangladesh,” General Zia is fond of saying, “because our problems are so great.”

New Mandate, New Opportunity

Now, with a new five‐year mandate from his overwhelming victory in the presidential election Saturday — a victory that the opposition says was won only by widespread rigging—General Zia has a new opportunity to tackle the problems.

Hard‐working and apparently incorruptible in his personal life, the general presents something of a quandary to Western diplomats and the many development experts who have been drawn to Bangladesh by the fact that it has some of the world’s worst problems and most pressing needs.

A strict and sometimes ruthless military man who apparently remained unfazed, for instance, by the secret trial and execution of at least 200 soldiers who plotted to overthrow him last October, General Zia is obviously no democrat in the Western style. And yet the representatives of the liberal democracies here mostly welcome him as the best thing that has happened to the country since it broke away from Pakistan in a bloody civil war six and a half years ago.

“He has put vigor into the government,” said a European expert in birth control, which many regard as Bangladesh’s most urgent need. “Things are steadily getting better in Bangladesh, as they have been ever since the day that he took over.”

General Zia was army chief of staff when he came to power in 1975, three months after the assassination of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. Immediately, in sharp contrast to the flamboyant and lackadaisical Sheik Mujib, the general began getting politics out of the civil service and streamlining state industries. Inflation went down. Food production went up.

He began proclaiming unpopular truths, such as, “Population control must be our nation’s No. 1 priority,” and “Bangladesh must feed itself and stop depending on the world for help.”

The general, a dapper man with a rigid military bearing and the habit of wearing sunglasses even on cloudy days, also apparently grew comfortable in the job of running the country. As generals have done all over the world after military takeovers, he used to say that he was “not a politician but a soldier” and insist that he was eager to get back to the barracks. But he does not talk that way anymore. And in the last year, since he assumed by executive order the title of President, the Government statements have been referring to him as “President” rather than “general.”

Although he still lives in the military camp just outside Dacca, with his wife and their two young sons, he now almost invariably appears in civilian clothes, rather than the trim camouflage uniform that used to be his trademark.

General Zia, who was born in the northwestern city of Bogra on Jan. 19, 1936, joined the army at 17, when his land was still part of Pakistan.

Animosity With Mujib

In the late 1960’s he grew increasingly sympathetic with Bengali nationalism, and in March 1971, after the West Pakistani crackdown on civilians here, it was Ziaur Rahman, then a regimental commander in the port city of Chittagong, who declared the independence of Bangladesh.

In the same radio broadcast, he also indicated that he was to be president of the new country, and though he soon yielded that role to Sheik Mujib, his ambitious self‐appointment was not forgotten, causing a bitter animosity between the two men.

In the war that followed the independence declaration, Ziaur Rahman. then a lieutenant colonel, commanded a brigade that came to be known as the “Z Force.” He acquired a reputation for bravery and for the icy calm with which he now approaches Bangladesh’s appalling problems, as well as the continuing intrigues within its highly politicized, 50,000‐man army.

In the election campaign that just ended, one popular slogan was “General Zia symbolizes national stability.” Clearly he does. But as one of his closest civilian advisers said the other day, “For Bangladesh, stability is just the starting point. Even after he has achieved that, the task ahead for Zia is enormous.”


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