21. Telegram From the Embassy in Bangladesh to the Department of State1

2146. Subj: Zia to Presidency: Background and Prospects. Ref: Dacca 2109.2

1. Why action now? We are not yet certain why Zia acted to assume the Presidency now. It is possible that Sayem’s health has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer function in his office (para 5 below). It is known that Zia (and we believe others in the military) were unhappy with Sayem’s plodding performance in his titular and portfolio duties (para 3), but whether there was an immediate specific difficulty is not now known. More likely, but still far from confirmed, is that a series of events beginning at least as early as Sayem’s opposition to last November’s postponement of the general elections have accumulated military impatience with Sayem and some or all of his civilian advisors and an issue, perhaps minor in itself, precipitated what appears to have been a sudden decision. One question hanging fire was Bangladeshi representation at the Commonwealth Conference in June. We assume, that the decision, while possible Zia’s alone, was taken in full coordination with the key members of the Army. Whether Admiral Khan and Air Vice Marshal Mahmood were included is not clear.

2. Anomaly removed: The elevation of Zia eliminates an anomaly which was created last November when he displaced Sayem as Chief Martial Law Administrator, but permitted Sayem to remain as formal Head of State. Sayem then retained the ceremonial duties, but he also continued to act as Chairman of the Council of Advisors (i.e. Cabinet) and by virtue of that position was necessarily involved to some extent in the affairs of the country. He also then retained his portfolios of foreign affairs, defense, law and parliamentary affairs, and establishment (i.e., control over the Civil Service as an institution).

3. Sayem’s position? We have known for some time that Zia was unhappy with the management of the Foreign Ministry (see Dacca [Page 77] 1461)3 and Sayem was replaced in this portfolio last month by Shamsul Huq. Zia now holds the other portfolios and must retain them (likely in the case of defense and establishment) or find new appointees for them (probably law and parliamentary affairs). He must also decide whether or not to retain his own portfolios of finance and home affairs. It would seem probable that he will drop these; even an energetic General can keep only a limited number of balls in the air at the same time. We assume he will have no problem with reshaping the Council if he chooses, as it presumably stands dissolved in a legal sense with the resignation of its Chairman.4

4. Zia and the Army: Another post which Zia must decide to retain or drop is that of Chief of the Army Staff. There were rumors during the evening of April 21 that Major General Ershad would become Chief of Staff and would also be appointed a Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, placing him on a par with Admiral Khan, the Navy Chief, and Air Vice Marshal Mahmood, the Air Force Chief. Prior to his November elevation Zia himself was a DCMLA. While the promotion of Ershad is in itself logical, it is also important to note that Zia’s power base is in the Army and he could wish to retain his place in the direct chain of command. Were Ershad (or someone else) promoted it would set off a series of changes which Zia could be expected to use to maintain or strengthen the loyalty of the Army to him. (Zia is, of course, “Commander-in-Chief” by virtue of being President.)5

5. Sayem’s “ill health”: Mahmood told the Ambassador that Sayem had been ill, but this was said without much conviction. The Foreign Secretary noted Sayem “had been ill for two days”. So far as we have been able to observe the rather remote former President he looks no better or worse than he has for some time. He is quite elderly, 61, and suffers from hypertension. Regardless of the actual state of his health, we would not be surprised to see Sayem leave Bangladesh for “treatment” abroad.

6. Policies: Except for the expected rearrangement of portfolios at the advisor level we foresee little change either in the method of governance of the country or in the policies which the administration will pursue. Zia, no doubt, hopes that by his energy and direct leader [Page 78] ship at the top he will be able to instill a higher level of enthusiasm and greater efficiency in the government. He has already in his series of talks to newly elected Union Council Chairmen tried to invigorate that level of the government machinery.

7. New pronouncements: Zia is to speak to the nation on the evening of April 22. We assume that the basic content of this address will be the programs he has recently outlined to the Union Council Chairmen (see Dacca 1963),6 but more than this will be expected by many. Looked for by some is a schedule for elections to a national representative body. The plodding progress of local elections is continuing but to many this is not enough.

8. Reaction: We have noted in septels7 that observable public reaction to the change has been almost totally absent. Dacca is going about its usual Friday business. A large gathering of officials and private citizens at the British Queen’s birthday reception last evening greeted the news (which came just before the guests arrived and many heard it for the first time there) with almost no concern. There are no signs that the administration expects any adverse reaction. Police are in their usual numbers in the city and no unusual military activity has been observed.

9. We will be commenting further after the content of Zia’s address is known.8

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770140–0370. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information Priority to Calcutta, Islamabad, New Delhi, and CINCPAC.
  2. Telegram 2109 from Dacca, April 21, reported that Zia was sworn in as President that day with little advance notice, and that “Dacca itself appears completely quiet although news has been public for several hours. No danger to Americans is apparent or anticipated. Mahmood told Ambassador that BDG did not expect any trouble or ‛at least nothing we cannot handle.’” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770139–1199)
  3. Telegram 1461 from Dacca, March 21, reported Zia’s complaints “that the Council of Advisors was not an effective group and that he felt one problem was in the Foreign Ministry where President Sayem held the portfolio.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770097–1187)
  4. Telegram 2154 from Dacca, April 23, reported that the Council of Advisors met under Zia’s chairmanship on April 22. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770141–1034)
  5. Telegram 2154 from Dacca, April 23, reported Zia’s announcement that he would retain his post as Chief of Staff of the Army.
  6. Telegram 1963 from Dacca, April 15, reported Zia’s April 13 speech given at the inaugural conference for the Union Parishad. To guide the efforts of the Union Chairmen, he outlined a six-point plan: “forming of food committees for facing the uncertain food situation; building up rural industries; building houses in the rural areas strong enough to withstand natural calamities; eradication of illiteracy; inspiring the people to accept voluntarily family planning; increasing textile production through optimum use of looms and increasing cotton production.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770131–0398)
  7. Not further identified.
  8. In Zia’s address to the nation on the evening of April 22, he announced that general elections would be held in December 1978, reassured Bangladeshis that there were sufficient food stocks in the country, and “warned also that the government and people of Bangladesh would not tolerate any disturbance of peace from any quarter.” (Telegram 2151 from Dacca, April 22; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770140–0732)