- After Zia was mysteriously killed by some fellow army officers in Chittagong on May 30, 1981, the ambassador suspected that the military could take over the government.
- The danger of instability in the military was ripe because Ershad was not seen by his senior colleagues as the strongest military leader.
- According to one rebel officer, Major Moinul Islam, neither Manzur nor Ershad took part in the initial planning. The rebel officers, who were all freedom fighters, cooked up the plan on their own.
- Every officer killed or arrested in Manzur’s aborted coup was a freedom fighter.
Gen. H. M. Ershad duped the United States after President Ziaur Rahman‘s assassination on May 30, 1981, telling the American ambassador that he had no plans to overthrow Justice Abdus Sattar, who succeeded the slain ruler as acting president.
“Bangladesh Army Chief of Staff Ershad told me June 25 that he had no interest in politics and that the military should not interfere in constitutional government unless there is a complete breakdown of civil authority and effectiveness,” Ambassador David T. Schneider informed the State Department on June 25, 1981.
Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh for nine years until forced out by a mass upsurge in 1990, toppled Sattar in a bloodless coup nine months after making the promise.
He talked with Schneider and the U.S. defense attaché in the Dhaka cantonment. They met him at his invitation. Ershad requested the meeting after realizing that Washington opposed a military coup. The envoy had hinted to him at a chance meeting at the presidential palace a day after Zia’s killing that America preferred continuation of the constitutional government.
“For some days, I have been looking for an opportunity to speak to Army chief of staff Ershad, but in view of my visibility and my desire to be seen as supporting the civil government, I decided not to take the initiative. It was Ershad who did so when he invited me and [the defense attaché] for a talk on June 25,” the diplomat wrote in a secret cable, which was obtained from the State Department under the Freedom of Information Ac
The United States, which favorably viewed Zia, wanted his efforts to restore violence-plagued Bangladesh to civilian rule to continue. Zia, an accidental politician who turned out to be a popular president, had just shed off his uniform in an attempt to prolong his political life as a civilian. But he was out of luck.
U.S. FEARED COUP AFTER ZIA
After Zia was mysteriously killed by some fellow army officers in Chittagong on May 30, 1981, the ambassador suspected that the military could take over the government. In a cable to the State Department on June 1, he reported his fear.
“I believe there is at least a fifty-fifty chance that those seeking a constitutional transition will fail and that another military coup resulting in martial law will take place,” Schneider wrote.
“I recommend that we seek to exercise what may be at least a marginal influence to preserve the constitutional transition. I propose that I seek an appointment with the acting president and that state the U.S. government hopes that his government will be successful in bringing about a constitutional transition. I would plan to convey this message to other government leaders, including the Army chief of staff.”
The danger of instability in the military was ripe because Ershad was not seen by his senior colleagues as the strongest military leader. Despite giving up his uniform as Army chief, Zia still led the military and Ershad was merely his loyal sidekick.
During the meeting in the cantonment, Schneider told Ershad he had instructions from Washington to tell Sattar that America was pleased with the preservation of democratic institutions in Bangladesh. In essence, he warned Ershad against declaring martial law.
Ershad responded by saying that he had experienced martial law in both Pakistan and Bangladesh; it did not work. So, the military should not intervene in constitutional government. He told the envoy he had a more pressing task before him—he had to focus on building unity and discipline in the polarized Army.
“I must preserve the unity of my own house,” Schneider wrote, quoting Ershad.
WHO KILLED ZIA?
Ershad squarely blamed his Chittagong garrison commander—Gen. M. A. Manzur—for killing Zia.
“He said that General Manzur was fully implicated, had been planning to move against Zia for some time, but decided to act only after evening prayers on the night of the assassination,” Schneider wrote to Washington.
After the mutiny failed, Manzur was killed. The circumstances surrounding Manzur’s death remained unclear. The original Bangladesh Radio report said the rebellious general was killed by angry enlisted men. The government press report on June 3 reported, however, that he died of wounds on the way to Chittagong after an exchange of gunfire between “some agitated armed people” and Manzur’s security guard.
Ershad said Manzur was first beaten and then shot by an unruly mob. His comments on Manzur’s death were separately pouched to Washington by the defense attaché. The State Department declined to release the document.
Manzur’s killing caused widespread speculation. Many people suspected he was murdered by elements who feared they would be implicated if he remained alive and told the full story.
According to one rebel officer, Major Moinul Islam, neither Manzur nor Ershad took part in the initial planning. The rebel officers, who were all freedom fighters, cooked up the plan on their own. Ershad hijacked their idea after he came to know about it through his military intelligence. Moin, who fled Bangladesh after the mutiny failed, now lives in Canada.
The mutineers did not want to kill Zia; after capturing him they wanted to force him to form a revolutionary command council comprising only freedom fighters. Manzur got involved after he learned that his subordinates already had advanced the coup plot. He feared that his leadership as garrison commander would be in jeopardy if he went against the rebels.
WHY REBELS TURNED AGAINST ZIA
The coup plotters turned against Zia because they felt he relied too much on the officers who were interned in West Pakistan during the 1971 war. The rebels were also furious because Zia had deliberately delayed promotion of some 60 battalion commanders. They were all freedom fighters, and Zia feared they could cause trouble in the Army—and for him as well. These field commanders took this posture as evidence that Zia trusted the repatriated officers more than his fellow freedom fighters.
Although he had no direct evidence, Major Moin suspected Ershad was behind the coup. His suspicion grew because a short time before Zia’s killing, one of the rebel officers, Colonel Matiur Rahman, came to Dhaka. The colonel told his co-conspirators that he went to finish some paperwork at the headquarters for a training mission in the United States. Moin suspects the colonel lied; he was maintaining liaison with Ershad. He went to Dhaka to meet with the chief for guidance. Moin came up with this theory because the colonel shot Zia to death, breaching a pact among the rebels not to kill the president.
Moin also gave his take on how Manzur was killed. He was shot dead by Mahmudul Hasan, then a brigadier and commander in Comilla. Hasan was later promoted to major general by Ershad. He took Manzur into a bathroom in the Chittagong cantonment and shot him in the head.
Before Hasan reached Chittagong, Manzur was under Major Emdad’s watch in the cantonment. Emdad took over Manzur from the Hathazari police station where he had been held since his capture in Fatikchhari. Hasan told Emdad that he had been sent by the high command in Dhaka to interrogate Manzur. Emdad handed over Manzur to Hasan.
Hasan had a personal vendetta against Manzur. As a member of the military selection board, Manzur had opposed his promotion to major general.
The Zia murder trial resulted in the execution of one young innocent military officer. All of the officers condemned to death did, indeed, take part in the coup. But Lieutenant Rafiqul Hassan Khan played no part in it; he was wrongfully convicted. He was only 23 years old when hanged.
UNINTENDED OUTCOME OF MUTINY
Zia’s murder—as well as Manzur’s—created an unintended outcome. The coup plotters sought to curb the influence of the repatriated officers, but their failure cemented the grip of the repatriates on the military.
A week after the abortive putsch, Gen. Mir Shawkat Ali was pushed out; he was made an ambassador. Shawkat had been, along with Manzur, one of the two main rivals of Zia. Shawkat, however, claimed he had a close personal relationship with Zia and his family.
With Manzur and Zia gone, there was much speculation about what Shawkat would do. He had been transferred in 1980 from Jessore where he commanded the 55th Division to a newly created position as chief secretary to the commander in chief (Zia) and adviser to the Army chief (Ershad.)
This position was specially created to remove Shawkat from troop control and keep him under close observation. His retirement completed the job of removing him from competition for power.
Shawkat had been very popular with his troops in Jessore and also to some extent with the 9th Division in Dhaka, which he founded. Since his return to Dhaka, however, Shawkat had become a very dedicated Muslim and was a strong disciple of a Muslim holy man, the Peer of Atrosshi. While this conversion decreased his support among some officers, it also gained him additional followers among devout Muslims, especially among enlisted men.
With the departure of Shawkat, the ranks of the Bangladesh freedom fighters in senior military positions had been reduced to Air Vice Marshal Sadruddin, the Air Force chief of staff, and Major General Moinul Hussain Chowdhury, who commanded the 11th Division, based in Rangpur.
Since the founding of Bangladesh, there had been a division within the military between the freedom fighters, those who fought in the 1971 war, and the repatriates, who were interned in Pakistan during the war.
Every officer killed or arrested in Manzur’s aborted coup was a freedom fighter.