In an interview archived in the Library of Congress, the U.S. diplomat Stephen E. Eisenbraun discussed the rise of Ziaur Rahman, how 1977 October coup shaped his thoughts and his invitation to the White House. The relevant parts of the long interview have been published here for the readers.
Q: You got to Bangladesh when?
EISENBRAUN: July of 1976. There had continued to be political turmoil after the assassination in ’75 and then, not to go into that whole story, it’s very complicated, but essentially the enlisted men in the army came to a general named Ziaur Rahman, this was in November of ’75, and they asked him, essentially, to lead them. The country was in chaos. More bloodshed had happened after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and so the army stepped in and there was martial law. Now, there were three chief martial law administrators; one from the army, the navy, and the air force, but the army leader, General Zia, was the major one.
Q: You were there from ’76 to when?
EISENBRAUN: ’76 to ’78.
Q: Now, what was your job?
EISENBRAUN: I was a political officer, the junior one in a two-person political section. The chief was Craig Baxter, who arrived a few weeks after I did and left about the time I did too. Baxter was an institution in the Foreign Service because he was not only a diplomat, he was a scholar on South Asia. After his career in the Foreign Service, he taught at the college level for many years and published extensively about South Asia, including Bangladesh. I learned a great deal from him about South Asia and how to operate as a political officer.
Q: One thinks of so many universities as being just, at their heart, anti-American because the kids, frankly, are going- this is on a worldwide basis, going through their Marxist phase and all that. Was this happening there?
EISENBRAUN Yes, it was. It’s fair to say that the politics at Dhaka University was quite to the left and Marxist-oriented, and they were so antagonistic toward Americans. But at the same time, you know, I have to emphasize again, they’re just such nice people that if you could spend 10 minutes with anybody you’d have a friend. But that first 10 minutes, at that particular time- and it was true later on in Pakistan, too; you couldn’t just walk on a campus. I had a subsequent assignment to Pakistan; you couldn’t walk on campus there either. You took your life in your hands if you did that. I had been on the Delhi University campus some two or three years earlier and that had not been a major problem. I made some good friends at Delhi University, but it wasn’t true in Dhaka or later in Lahore, Pakistan.
I want to say something about the atmosphere and what it was like in Bangladesh. First of all, it was a poor country, of course, and it had been devastated by the civil war a few years earlier. Then the country had descended into famine in ’74 and ’75 prior to Sheikh Mujib’s assassination and the whole country was traumatized over that assassination.
The country was barely recovering, and I credit General Zia with much of the recovery; he was a solid administrator, a moderate who had logical policies and one who rallied the Bangladeshi people.
On a personal level, I had the sense of being as far away from home as I could possibly get. It was an exotic place, but it was also lonesome. But the exotic parts were something else; the main mode of transportation was by bicycle rickshaw, for example. I lived in an area called Farmgate, which no Western diplomat now knows anything about because it wasn’t the area where Westerners lived.
Q: Well, how did the Muslim side of things impact at that time?
EISENBRAUN: There was no Islamic-oriented politics. When I got there in ’76, Islam was hardly a political factor. And the Islamic practices of the Bangladeshi people were more moderate than most other Muslim nations in the world. Bangladeshis are pious people, and the mosques are always full, and yet Islam was almost of no consequence in politics at that time. The Awami League had been taking the country in a socialist and secular direction in the early 1970s, and when General Zia introduced politics back in 1978, he brought left and right together in a moderate party of his own creation.
In fact, there was an article in The New York Times Magazine just a few weeks ago about whether Bangladesh is ripe for a Taliban situation. I don’t think that’s the case, and I hope not, but radical Islam is a growing factor in a part of the Bangladesh political spectrum. But it isn’t indigenous; it isn’t the sort of thing the Bangladeshis themselves would embrace, but then countries change.
Q: Well, as a political officer in a country with quite tight controls under military dictatorship, what’d you do? I mean, were you just sort of reporting on general atmospherics or what?
EISENBRAUN: Well, yes, there was some of that. There also were a whole lot of visitors from Washington. Steve Solarz was a Congressman interested in Bangladesh, and he visited several times during my tenure. There were lots of other officials coming out. The Peace Corps wanted to establish a program but it never did get established in that era. Muhammad Ali came out a couple of times, but he didn’t ask anything of the embassy.
[…] After about a year of this, I was getting bored because there wasn’t much of a story to tell Washington. But there were some high points nevertheless. Shall I tell a story or two?
EISENBRAUN: In October of 1977, a terrorist group called the Japanese Red Army hijacked a Japanese airliner in the Middle East and flew it eastward across India. Nobody was giving the plane landing rights for refueling until Bangladesh did. It landed in Dhaka with a full international passenger list, including many Americans. Then began days of drama and tension as the Bangladeshis negotiated with the hijackers, as well as the Japanese Government, to release the passengers, to meet the hijackers’ demands for the release of Red Army prisoners in Japan, and for the Japanese to pay a ransom of some millions of dollars. Then events got out of hand.
[…] Well, about 5:00 am on the fourth or fifth day into this hijacking drama, a military coup broke out, led by enlisted men in the air force while General Mahmoud was in the control tower at the airport. Soldiers attacked the airport and were after Mahmood to kill him. There was fighting going on between pro- and anti-rebel factions around the airport, and some of the rebels got to the radio station and announced they were taking over the country. Before he went off the air, General Mahmoud said to the hijackers, there is trouble here in the terminal and you may see some armed men running around near your plane, so defend yourselves.
[…] General Mahmoud was not killed. He told me twenty years later that he was lined up along the wall to be shot, but one of the rebels said no, he’s a good guy. So they spared his life. He told me this over tea in about 1997 when I was back on my second posting in Dhaka.
The coup was put down in a few hours. The enlisted men didn’t have enough support. It was the air force which had mutinied, but the army, with the greater number of soldiers and equipment, stayed loyal. That afternoon, most of the hostages and the Japanese ex-prisoners and the money were exchanged. The plane was pushed away from the terminal and took off for parts unknown. It ended up in either Libya or Algeria, I can’t remember which, where, in the end, the hijackers got away and the final passengers were released.
Q: What had caused the coup?
EISENBRAUN: There were parochial matters like pay and living conditions of the enlisted men. The rebels had obviously been disgruntled and probably thought that with all the senior leadership of the air force in one spot in the control tower, they could be killed and the takeover would be successful. But the army remained loyal and put the mutiny down.
General Zia showed another side to himself in the weeks after the mutiny. He had seemed a moderate political leader, but he was also ruthless in maintaining his power. He had men hanged right and left in the military who were suspected plotters. No one knows for sure, but probably hundreds were just shot or hanged one after another after another in the ensuing weeks. Very bloody and it was all totally secret. They had non-public military trials; I don’t even think we knew much about it in the embassy. We heard some rumors about secret trials and executions, but we didn’t know the whole story. That didn’t come out until years and years later.
After the coup and the hijacking, Ambassador Masters was really impressed with General Zia. Masters thought that Zia was the answer to Bangladesh’s troubles, its instability. And so if we heard rumors that certain people in the military were being tried, well, the embassy attitude was that they probably deserved it. Masters worked with the State Department a couple of months after that, before he left post, to get Zia invited to the White House, at least for a luncheon. It didn’t happen.
One of the reasons it didn’t happen is that when I went back to Washington in the summer of ’78 and Deputy Assistant Secretary Jane Coon took me to lunch, she told me that no way would Zia get invited to the White House. Jane was absolutely clear. She knew the rumors of the bloodshed following the coup attempt, and she said that because of Zia’s human rights record, he’s not going to get invited to the White House. She was the one in the Department responsible for stopping the proposal, and the White House may not even
have known of Masters’ efforts to get Zia an invitation.
Well, jump to Christmas, 2004. Masters and I were guests at a reception at Jane’s home in Washington, and we were reminiscing over our days in Dhaka. I reminded him of his efforts to get General Zia to Washington to meet Carter. Masters replied, yes, but I never pulled it off. I said, well, I know who stopped it. He said, who was that? I replied, it’s our hostess, Jane, and I related to him what Jane had told me some 26 years earlier. Masters looked over at Jane and said, rather bemusedly, is that so? He hadn’t known. I told him I was doing this oral history and asked him if I could relate this story. He said OK, go
By the way, Zia did get his invitation to the White House, however. Sometime after Masters left Dhaka, President Carter and General Zia met in Tokyo at the funeral for the Japanese Prime Minister. Carter and Zia hit it off, and Carter issued the invitation, as I understand it.