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

3854. CINCPAC for POLAD. Subject: Conversation With Bangladesh President Zia: U.S.-Bangladesh Relations.

Summary: In my first bilateral meeting with Bangladesh President Zia since our talk after presentation of credentials,2 I sketched out my view of the basis for U.S.-Bangladesh relations, seeking by my emphasis on economic assistance and omission of mention of military matters to get across the concept that our aid was at the heart of our ties. I spoke of U.S. appreciation for the process he had initiated toward effective and representative government. I mentioned the importance we attach to regional stability, emphasizing both our support to South Asian bilateral negotiation and to the sovereign equality of the participants. I then mentioned some of the potential trouble spots in our relations: effective aid performance, aid to the poor, human rights and Bangladesh positions on international issues of importance to the U.S. In reply the President spoke warmly of our good relations and talked at length and optimistically of his plans for development. He also expressed pride in his program “to bring about democracy”. Speaking on relations among South Asian countries, he advocated further negotiations to settle all differences, and seconded my emphasis on the sovereign equality of the negotiating nations. He cautiously reciprocated my proposal for cooperation on certain international issues. The President’s behavior toward me since my arrival suggests that he wants to make a special effort to develop closer ties with the U.S., perhaps better relations than will be possible. My presentation may give him some idea of the possibilities and limitations; our future dialogue should spell out the rest. While I do not plan to pursue the President, I believe I can expect that he will wish to see me from time to time. End summary.

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1. Since the election campaign ensued quite soon after I presented my credentials in March, I deferred seeing President Zia until after June 3. I met him at a reception he gave for local Ambassadors several days after that date and two days later he invited the High Commissioners of Britain, Canada and Australia and me and our wives for a quiet and informal dinner at his modest residence in the cantonment. There he spoke at length and with pride of his accomplishments during the past two and a half years and of the successful election process. As I did not have an opportunity for private conversation with him on that occasion I asked for an appointment (and received it within several hours) and met with him in his office on June 17. Adviser for Foreign Affairs Shamsul Haq and Foreign Secretary Tabarak Husain were also present but participated very little.

2. After expressing my appreciation for the warmth with which members of his government have received me (it has been a most friendly arrival), I told the President I wished to discuss our bilateral relations, which I thought were very good. I then laid out for him what I thought was the foundation in the U.S. for our good relations, trying by my emphasis on our economic relations to get across the concept that our aid relationship was at the heart of our ties. I noted the support I had found for our assistance around the country in the U.S.; I mentioned the friendly support I had found on the Hill and told him of the President’s personal commitment, on both moral and national interest grounds, to U.S. assistance to underdeveloped countries such as Bangladesh. I told him that I felt this was a valuable constituency which we both should protect and nourish.

3. I then told him that I believed the U.S. attitude toward stability in Bangladesh and in the region generally also supported good relations. I said that his efforts to establish leadership and effective institutions to carry out programs to benefit the Bangladesh people were appreciated in Washington. We had been impressed by the progress toward representative government, the movement away from martial law, the release of political prisoners and the recent elections. These were all directed toward increased stability and development in Bangladesh, which we supported. I then addressed myself to South Asia, saying that we appreciated the way in which the President, with his colleagues, in the other South Asian nations, had gone about resolving their differences on a bilateral basis. This had been constructive and had contributed to a regional stability in which the nations could concentrate on their domestic needs. I said that the USG viewed this as a process among sovereign equal nations and we viewed Bangladesh in this light. We did not consider that any nation had any right to hegemony in the area. Finally, I said that the U.S. considered Bangladesh, particularly in the light of its achievements in the past two years, to be an [Page 98] important and responsible participant in the global dialogue on international issues in U.N., North-South, non-aligned and Islamic fora.

4. I told the President that I saw several sensitive areas in which problems could develop which could undermine the foundation of our relations. I mentioned four: their performance in our aid programs; the importance of meeting the needs of the poorer sections of his society; human rights (see separate telegram);3 and their positions on international issues of particular importance to the U.S.

5. The President made a discoursive reply which nevertheless spoke to most of my points. He said he agreed with virtually all the points I had made. Our relations were good and he wanted them to stay that way. He expressed his great appreciation for our aid; the U.S. was the largest donor of aid to Bangladesh and it was badly needed. He talked at some length (as he had at dinner several nights before) about what he was doing to carry out development programs. He spoke of his great expectations for Bangladeshi agriculture (in my opinion, over-optimistic expectations) and of the beginning which had been made in family planning. (See separate telegram on development issues.)4

6. Responding to my comments on internal developments in Bangladesh, Zia explained that present conditions here must be understood in terms of the nation’s history: the first five difficult years; and the process they had started only two and a half years ago. (He described how on November 7, 1975 he had sat down at a broken desk in a shattered office and said to his staff, “let’s get to work.”) He described with pride steps which had been taken to create a government and, now, to “bring about democracy.” He was particularly animated when describing the Presidential elections and the quiet and peaceful way in which they were conducted (Contrary to what happens in other countries, he said, “I did not permit the military to be involved in any way in conducting the elections.”). He was pleased with the coverage he received in the international press at election time. He knew that in a democracy the press had to have free access; he welcomed them, understood that there would be both good and bad in their reports and was satisfied with the net result. He told me that the usual condition [Page 99] after elections in this region was for the politicians to forget about their pledges and to lose contact with the countryside. He planned to change this. He gave particular emphasis to his plans for decentralization, for involving local bodies in the development process.

7. The President referred to my mentioning of the negotiated differences among South Asian nations. The concept of sovereign equality was of great importance to Bangladesh, he said. He appreciated the help which the U.S. had given on the Farakka issue5 and “on the border”.6 Now, he explained, there should be a greater exchange of delegations between the South Asian nations; there should be trade agreements. The nations should resolve their remaining differences.

8. Finally, in regard to Bangladesh’s positions on international issues, the President said that Bangladesh belonged to various international groups. He was sure, however, that it could provide support to U.S. moves for (and here he paused to search for the right word) peace.

9. Thereafter the conversation turned to development issues and certain specific issues, (Belbagco,7 the Chancery,8 and the Cholera Research Lab)9 on which separate messages will be prepared.10

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10. Comment: The President’s behavior toward me since my arrival has suggested that he wishes to make a special effort to develop close relations with the U.S. Knowing this, I sought to use our discussion to indicate to him my sympathetic interest in his programs, particularly those of economic development, and to indicate those areas in which I believed relations could be close, the steps which would be necessary to protect such close relations, and (indirectly by omission) those areas in which cooperation is unlikely. While all three of Zia’s military chiefs have raised military sales with me (I have discouraged them from expecting any change in our policy), Zia did not even allude to any military need. I conclude that he understands. I suspect, however, that he desires a political relationship which may extend beyond what we will be able to offer. His allusion to his desire to visit the United States (see separate message)11 is an illustration of what he desires and what we may be unable to give.

11. One is impressed by Zia’s sincerity and his warm and quiet manner. He is obviously enjoying his job and that job has become increasingly the job of a politician. He made the usual allusion to being only a military man, but he is clearly now much more than that and is learning politics rapidly and having some success at it. One is also impressed by an element of unreality in Zia’s approach to development. He speaks in broad generalizations and in great South Asian sweeps of optimism. He impresses me as a man who has been on the campaign trail too long and who should come home and dig into the routine of government administration for a while. It is uncertain whether or not he will; he spoke of going back on his speechmaking circuit soon.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780256–0109. Confidential. Sent for information to Islamabad, New Delhi, Kathmandu, Colombo, Kabul, and CINCPAC.
  2. Schneider was appointed on March 2 and presented his credentials on March 29. In telegram 1961 from Dacca, March 30, Schneider reported that his discussion with Zia at the credentials ceremony seemed “worth reporting briefly since it turned out to be considerably more than the usual protocol session. That Zia spent forty-five minutes with me—one of his staff members said this was the longest he had spent with any new Ambassador—is an indication of the value he puts on the benefits which come (or which he hopes will come) from his relations with the U.S. Most of his presentation was a cool and rational pitch for continued U.S. support to Bangladeshi development.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780145–0728, D780139–0062)
  3. In telegram 3846 from Dacca, June 19, Schneider reported that during his June 17 discussion with Zia, “I raised the issue of political prisoners. I said that Americans in and out of government were still concerned about political prisoners. I explained to him why American feelings on this issue are strong, noting our conviction that it was our deeply held values which enabled us to work out the problems of Vietnam and Watergate. I explained that President Carter, a deeply religious man, held strong personal convictions about the dignity of the individual. It was logical, I said, that these values would emerge in the U.S. view of the world.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780254–1209)
  4. See Document 34.
  5. The Farakka Barrage, located in the Indian state of West Bengal close to India’s border with Bangladesh, diverts water from the Ganges in order to flush out silt from the Port of Calcutta. Tension arose between India and Bangladesh when the dam was completed in 1975, because it reduced Bangladesh’s water supply. Telegram 6446 from Dacca, November 8, 1977, reported Bangladesh’s and India’s November 5 water sharing agreement. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770412–0234) The Carter administration supported efforts to ameliorate the regional frictions caused by Indo-Bangladeshi water sharing issues; see Document 1.
  6. Not further identified.
  7. Belbagco was a U.S. firm operating in East Pakistan. After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the new government nationalized the firm’s assets, claiming that Belbagco was partially financed by Pakistani funds. In 1976, Belbagco’s parent company issued a claim demanding compensation. In telegram 3847 from Dacca, June 19, Schneider reported that when he raised the longstanding issue during their June 17 meeting, Zia indicated that the matter had been resolved. Schneider rejoined that it had not, noting “the lamentable demise” of the most recent U.S. offer, “when the Ministry of Industries had virtually cut it in half by changing the exchange rate.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780254–1187)
  8. Telegram 3874 from Dacca, June 20, recounted Schneider’s attempt during their June 17 meeting to secure Zia’s help in expediting the Bangladeshi Government’s approval of the start of construction on the proposed U.S. Chancery. Schneider “told him that our present Chancery had the reputation of being the worst in the world and I did not believe either of us wanted that situation to continue.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780256–0455)
  9. Telegram 3679 from Dacca, June 9, reported interest in Bangladesh in the internationalization of the Cholera Research Laboratory (CRL), noting: “Controversy is characterized by repetition of serious charges of professional misconduct by past and present CRL employees and Bangladeshi members of scientific review committee and ethical review committee. Charges of personal misbehavior are being made.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780249–0138)
  10. Not found.
  11. In telegram 3882 from Dacca, June 20, Schneider described Zia’s indirect requests to be invited to visit the United States and meet Carter. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780256–0933)