Les Ledbetter, The New York Times (May 31, 1981)
When Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman seized power in Bangladesh six years ago, he was hailed as the strict leader that the struggling nation needed.
After the coup that gave him the presidency, the soft-spoken military man was described as hard-working and incorruptible in his personal life and able to make the tough decisions needed to lift the new nation, created when it broke away from Pakistan in 1971, to its feet.
Some critics called General Zia ruthless because of the manner in which he put down internal political and military opposition. After one attempt to oust him, his critics charged, 200 soldiers were secretly tried and executed.
But even his opponents acknowledged that, with Western nations and international banks pouring money into the country, he seemed to be making headway against the problems of overpopulation and poverty.
Urged Population Control
Soon after the coup that brought him to power in 1975, first as army Chief of Staff and then as chief martial law administrator, General Zia began making unpopular statements, 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.”
Unlike his predecessors, the general eliminated much of the politics from within the civil service and began streamlining state industries. But although inflation went down and food production went up, the nation’s problems remained serious.
Less than a year ago, as he took his campaign for what he called a ”peaceful revolution” to the nation’s villages, he stressed four points in his program: a commitment to double food production in five years; a mass literacy campaign; family planning and population control, and, most controversial, the establishment of a volunteer militia that would be used for both police and development work.
Some of his opponents questioned whether the militia was intended less for use in development work than to strengthen his Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Born in the northwestern city of Bogra on Jan. 19, 1936, Ziaur Rahman joined the army when he was 17 years old. In the late 1960’s he grew increasingly sympathetic with Bengali nationalism. The province of East Bengal was separated from the rest of Pakistan by 1,800 miles of India, which encouraged the nationalistic fervor on its eastern border.
In March 1971, after a Pakistani crackdown on civilians, it was Ziaur Rahman, then a regimental commander in the port city of Chittagong, who declared the independence of Bangladesh.
Yielded Power to Mujibur Rahman
In that radio broadcast, he indicated that he would be President of the new country. But he soon had to yield that power to Sheik Mujibur Rahman, a flamboyant leader who became his enemy.
Some Bangladeshis use their first names as the surname. Ziaur Rahman becomes Zia, instead of Ziaur, in subsequent references because the last two letters of his surname are from an article that is used with the second name. Similarly, the name of Mujibur Rahman becomes Mujib on second reference.
In the war with Pakistan that followed the declaration of independence, Ziaur Rahman, then a lieutenant colonel, commanded a brigade that became known as the ”Z Force.” He acquired a reputation for icy bravery.
General Zia, a dapper man with a trim salt-and-pepper mustache, a rigid military bearing and the habit of wearing sunglasses even on cloudy days, lived with his wife, Begum Khaleda, and two sons in a white-stone bungalow in Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh.
After the assassination of Sheik Mujib in 1975 and a series of coups and countercoups, General Zia consolidated his power when the military moved against Moshtaque Ahmed, who had assumed the presidency in another coup and tried to strip General Zia of his power. Won Five-Year Term in 1978
Having named himself President by executive order in 1977, General Zia ran for a five-year term in 1978 and was overwhelmingly elected. His opponents said the voting was rigged.
Late in 1978, he proclaimed his intention to end almost four years of martial law. He called for parliamentary elections and the full restoration of the democratic process. The elections were held in 1979, and his Nationalist Party won a two-thirds majority in Parliament.