William Branigin, Washington Post (June 3, 1981)
Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis poured through the streets of this crowded, dirt-poor capital today in a funeral procession for slain President Ziaur Rahman and the government announced the deaths of three leaders of the rebellion that took his life.
At least one person was reported killed as crowds of mourners pressed to view the coffin at the old Parliament building. Parliamentary officials called for military assistance in controlling the crowd during the night after a group of angry supporters of the slain president reportedly tried to carry his coffin away.
Hours after today’s funeral procession and burial, the government reported the arrests of 17 Army officers allegedly involved in the two-day takeover of the southern port city of Chittagong. A communique also announced the measures to punish those responsible for Zia’s murder and disclosed that authorities are seeking an unspecified number of accomplices “who are still hiding.”
The statement said a court of inquiry and a field general court-martial have been set up to identify and try “the culprits responsible for the brutal killing of President Ziaur Rahman.”
The burial of the assassinated president capped an outpouring of grief for a leader widely regarded here as a vital force behind efforts to develop a country that Henry Kissinger once called “an international basket case.”
Zia’s death leaves a leadership vacuum that could eventually lead to a struggle for power and reduce the degree of political stability he had established, Bangladeshi and Western sources said. Combined with a leveling off of international development aid this year, the sources said, Zia’s murder also casts a pall over prospects for continuing the country’s painfully slow but steady economic progress of recent years.
In addition, the loss of the authoritarian but generally popular president has laid bare some old, unresolved rivalries that have been festering within the armed forces since the country’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The government announcement added some conflicting detail to an official Radio Bangladesh broadcast this morning that reported the death of the rebel commander, Maj. Gen. Manzur Ahmed. The initial report said an angry soldier killed Manzur as he was being brought back to Chittagong following his capture near a village north of the city.
The later announcement said two of Manzur’s “accomplices” both lieutenant colonels, also died in the attack. It said that “some agitated armed people tried to snatch them” as they were being taken under guard to the Chittagong garrison. The announcement said “an exchange of fire” ensued between the attackers and the guards, during which Manzur was shot and wounded. He died on the way to the hospital, and his two aides were killed on the spot, the communique said.
According to a well-informed Bangladeshi source, however, Manzur was shot inside the Chittagong cantonment by fellow soldier about 9 p.m. yesterday, two hours after he was captured along with his wife and three children and the two Army officers in a thatched hut 17 miles north of the port city. The source said Manzur had been on the point of opening fire on police when one of them grabbed his daughter as a hostage.
Official government spokesmen were not immediately able to confirm or deny another report that his wife, daughter and two young sons were killed along with Manzur and the two officers during the attack while in custody.
Bangladesh government officials and other sources generally agreed, however, that Manzur’s motives in launching the rebellion appeared to be personal rather than political. It was widely reported that Manzur, a hero along with Zia in the 1971 war against Pakistan, had deeply resented a scheduled transfer from his command position in Chittagong to an office job in Dacca as commandant of the Army staff college.
According to foreign and Bangladeshi sources, Manzur, regarded as a brilliant but extremely ambitious officer, had been angry with Zia since 1979 when the president transferred him to Chittagong in what was seen as a move to keep him out of the way.
Manzur also reportedly had felt slighted by Zia’s appointment of Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad as Army chief of staff instead of him.
The resentments boiled over into an angry argument between Zia and Manzur at the Chittagong cantonment only hours before the attack that killed the touring president, sources said.
The 43-year-old Manzur, an intellectual among officers with a master’s degree in economics from Dacca University, was politically hard to classify, sources said. During his student days he had been considered pro-Peking but he later established relations with the Islamic fundamentalists who constitute a key force in Bangladesh politics, one official said.
Manzur’s differences with Ershad also pointed up a sore spot within the country’s military that may come into play again, the sources said. Manzur was one of the Bengali “Liberation Army” officers who fought the Pakistanis, while Ershad is among the so-called “repatriated officers” who were posted in what was then West Pakistan during the 1971 war and did not participate in the conflict that resulted in East Pakistan’s secession as Bangladesh.
Although Vice President Abdus Sattar, who is 75, has officially taken over as acting president, Ershad now is effectively wielding power behind the scenes, Bangladeshi sources said.
Under Bangladesh’s constitution, new presidential elections must be held within six months of the chief of state’s death.
William Branigin spent 19 years overseas, reporting in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Europe.