‘Americans caught as much by surprise as Bangladeshis’, Eisenbraun on August 15

In an interview archived in the Library of Congress, the U.S. diplomat Stephen E. Eisenbraun discussed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s rule as both Prime Minister and President and his assassination during a brutal coup. The relevant parts of the long interview have been published here for the readers.

The New York Times reports the death of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 16, 1975.

Q: You were discussing previously that they asked you to leave INR and come back to the Bangladesh desk to work for the balance of the summer of 1975?

EISENBRAUN: Yes, they said we’d like you to spend the rest of the summer on the Bangladesh desk as the acting desk officer because the regularly assigned desk officer wanted to travel to Bangladesh and then take a course at the Foreign Service Institute.

[…] I want to mention one or two things from that summer because they have some significance.

The first is more just a curiosity but one day a tasker came down from the seventh floor to do a human rights report on Bangladesh. This is now, remember, the summer of ’75, and that was before the big exercise we now know as the Human Rights Report came into existence.

Q: From the Carter administration. But this is a congressional mandate.

EISENBRAUN: What I was asked to do was probably not because of a Congressional mandate, but it came about two or three years before the mandate we all now know so well came into existence. I work right now as a retiree in the human rights office at State, doing editing of the human rights reports on South Asia. But, in 1975, that was the first human rights report done on Bangladesh, and it took me all of an afternoon to do it. I showed it to somebody more senior and they said, it’s not right. I was advised to concentrate more on the legalities such as the constitution of the country and the official safeguards for human rights, such as did the constitution guarantee freedom of speech and so forth. So I just did it over.

[…] I want to talk about something else, though, that really is important from a Bangladesh point of view. This material has been published by one or two journalists, but it isn’t generally known.

In the summer of 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the self-appointed president of Bangladesh, which had become independent only at the beginning of 1972. Sheikh Mujib was a Bangladesh national hero and had been the symbol for the resistance of the Bengalis against the Pakistanis, although he spent the time of the fighting in prison in Pakistan. When he came back to the new country of Bangladesh in early 1972, he was given a hero’s welcome and was named prime minister.

But he wasn’t an administrator, and the country had great needs. He responded by consolidating power in his own hands. Bangladesh was falling into an autocratic form of government. It was terrible, actually, in the summer of 1975, I guess, to be on the streets of Bangladesh.

Mujib had established his own private security force that ferreted out dissenters for punishment. The private security forces, called the Rakkhi Bahini, snubbed the army, which had fought for independence, so eventually, plots of coups developed, even threats to Mujib’s life.

People in Bangladesh would whisper this to the embassy. This reporting was coming back to Washington so steadily that it became clear that this isn’t idle chatter. Sheikh Mujib’s life seemed in danger. I remember the discussion of whether we had an ethical responsibility to warn Sheikh Mujib about the danger to his life. The decision was that, yes, we did have that responsibility. And the Ambassador did go in.

Q: Who was the Ambassador?

EISENBRAUN: Davis Eugene Boster, who died only recently. He went in, to Mujib, this would have probably been in late July or early August of 1975. I might have drafted his talking points, but I can’t remember for sure if I did.

Anyway, the essence of what Boster was instructed to say was, we hear many threats of a coup and threats of violence against you. He didn’t name names. He merely warned Mujib to be careful. As my memory has it, Mujib was casual about it and said, don’t worry, I know my people; they love me and
everything’s under control.

Well, the last day of my assignment on the Bangladesh desk was Friday, August 15, and I had essentially checked out. All I had to do that morning was just come in and say goodbye because the next Monday morning I was starting Bengali language training at FSI. Ann Griffin as the desk officer had come back and taken over responsibility the day before. So I came into the office that morning to the absolute hubbub.

There was frenzied activity because Sheikh Mujib and all of his family had been assassinated a few hours earlier. Yes. It was a horrible massacre, where renegade mid-career army officers had come to his house in the middle of the night and shot him and his wife and all the children, probably well over a dozen people.

Q: Does that fall within the culture, you know?

EISENBRAUN: No, Bangladesh generally doesn’t have that culture of violence, but there had been considerable violence since the struggle for independence, starting in 1970. People were desperate. There is, I guess, a history of sporadic but great violence all over South Asia that has broken out occasionally when the tensions have become too great to bear. This was one of those times.

Q: I’m thinking of the family. I mean.

EISENBRAUN: No, that is not in the culture. The coup plotters murdered everybody with automatic weapons. It seemed not so different from the killing of the royal family in Russia in 1918.

My memory has it that the actual perpetrators, the majors who did it, were not necessarily the ones we’d been hearing about in the days before the coup. The Americans were caught as much by surprise almost as much as the Bangladeshis.

Sheikh Mujib had no administrative ability, and as it turned out, an authoritarian streak. He was turning Bangladesh into a dictatorship and not addressing the tremendous economic development problems.

Stephen eisenbraun

I say this because there was one surviving member of the family, the daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who was not in the country at the time. In 1996, she became Prime Minister of Bangladesh when I was serving my second tour in Bangladesh, and I know that she believes the Americans knew about the assassination plot in advance and did nothing to stop it, and in fact may have had a hand in it.

It’s my understanding from working on the desk in 1975 that the Americans did warn Sheikh Mujib, as I described; but that they were surprised by the people who actually carried out the coup and the assassination. Believe me, it was a shock on the desk that day.

Q: Well now, was the Sheikh popular? I mean, were we seeing him warts and all or was he somebody we really wished would go away? Or how did we feel about him at that time?

EISENBRAUN: Sheikh Mujib had no administrative ability, and as it turned out, an authoritarian streak. He was turning Bangladesh into a dictatorship and not addressing the tremendous economic development problems.

Q: Well, how were we looking at him? I mean, as somebody to be endured or were we hoping that somebody else would come in there and take charge. I mean, I’m just trying to capture kind of the American feeling.

EISENBRAUN: Ambassador Boster wanted to keep the U.S. at arm’s length from Sheikh Mujib, as Mujib became more and more authoritarian and was suspending rights and was developing his own personal army, practically. We had an economic aid relationship as we poured in a tremendous amount of resources, a lot of food aid because the needs were limitless. They were recovering from a devastating hurricane just before the war, then nine months of civil war and genocide; the humanitarian needs were infinite, and we responded generously. However, we made a distinction between the economic assistance and the political sphere. Mujib was willing to be friendly with the Soviets and the Soviets had a huge presence in Bangladesh. He talked socialism, which was not welcome in Washington. His comments on that score were essentially rhetorical, since I don’t know that he particularly implemented any policies that you could say were socialist; he didn’t
have very much structure in his government, frankly; the Bangladeshis were still groping to put together a government. So our relationship was cool politically, and Kissinger hadn’t the time of day as the Secretary of State for Sheikh Mujib.

Q: Did you get any feeling, I realize you’re the brand new boy on the block, but did you get any feel for the power relationship within NEA, one, for Bangladesh vis a vis India-Pakistan and two, India-Pakistan, well I mean, what we call the sub-continent and the Arab-Israeli problem?

EISENBRAUN: Bangladesh didn’t count in the power relationships within the NEA bureau. It was just a humanitarian disaster to deal with. Kissinger actually went out to Bangladesh; he stopped through en route to another destination and probably didn’t even spend overnight. But he did show up and he made some comment, probably an aside, of Bangladesh as a basket case, and unfortunately, that’s what stuck as the essence of the American policy attitude. Bangladeshis even today, 30 years later, remember Kissinger’s basket case comment.

%d bloggers like this: