Bernard D. Nossiter, The New York Times (August 29, 1980)
Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the President of Bangladesh, has been uttering heresy at the United Nations bargaining session between rich and poor. Unlike most spokesmen here for developing countries, General Zia does not think that the task of aiding the poor is exclusively a Western affair.
He wants the oil-producing countries to help by halving the price of crude for the poorest importers. He even thinks the Soviet bloc should pitch in by doubling its foreign aid, which is limited.
“Somebody has got to say this first,” he said in an interview in his hotel suite. “So we say it. Where lie the surpluses? They lie with OPEC, the Socialist countries and the West. All these three groups should share the effort of developing the least developed.”
With his trim pepper-and-salt mus-tache, brown pin-striped suit and brown-striped white shirt, the 44-year-old President looks very much like a man who could still lead his troops on a forced march.
Took Power in 1975
He took power in Bangladesh in 1975 after the assassination of its founder, Sheik Mujibur Rahman. Three years and several purges later a referendum confirmed General Zia, as he is known, as President for another five years, at least. How long should a general stay in power? he was asked. He wagged an admonishing finger at his questioner and said with a smile, “I was a military man. I am not a military man now.” But even when he talks of domestic affairs his vocabulary is sprinkled with military verbs.
“We have mobilized the people to work on a voluntary basis to bring the whole country under irrigation,” he said. There are “massive volunteers” brought to bear, he added, digging canals and ditches and building small darns. “We plan to double food production in five or six years,” he says with assurance. “We will be self-sufficient.”
His country of 90 million has one of the world’s highest rates of population gain, adding another 2.5 million people to the total each year. As a result, the President has started a drive to limit births.
“We’re hitting at the villages where 90 percent of the people live,” he says. General Zia is ambitious. Elsewhere in Asia, except in China, family planning programs have succeeded in cities but failed in the countryside because medical and other urban-based workers will not stay there.
The President is relying on an army of aides from his Bangladesh National Party to carry the contraceptive message and the means. “There is tremendous enthusiasm among the people,” he insists.
His third great concern is teaching the four in five who are illiterate how to read and write. “We have mobilized the whole nation,” he said, “launched this program for literacy. People are teaching on a voluntary basis.”
Frank About His Motives
Some students of Bangladeshi politics have suggested that the General’s volunteers are at least as interested in enhancing his reputation and building his party as they are in the people’s welfare. He shrugged. “When I go anywhere, I’m a political man,” he said. “I’m mobilizing for my party. You use volunteers to win votes.”
This frankness disappears when he talks of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Bangladesh has been a leader, at the United Nations in condemning the move and urging Moscow to withdraw its troops. But General Zia is on his guard over what the next step should be.
“The efforts have to be continued,” he said. “You should be doing a lot more,” he added, alluding to the United States.
Just what the United States should do he will not say.