43. Telegram 3964 From the Embassy in Bangladesh to the Department of State 1 2


  • Preliminary Comment on the Coup in Bangladesh

1. The events of the first twenty-four hours give promise that the coup which began at 0515 local time on August 15 will not be challenged. The oaths of fealty to the new government sworn by the service chiefs, the heads of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles and Rakkhi Bahini and the head of the police bring all armed elements into support of the new regime. The public has displayed no particular jibilation at the fall of Mujib but rather a calm acceptance, and perhaps some sense of relief. The relative ease with which power has been transferred suggests above all the degree to which Mujib and the Bangalees had become alienated from one another, the Bangalees from Mujib because of his failure to meet their aspirations and his apparent desire to hold power largely for personal agrandizement and dynastic reasons, and Mujib from the Banglaees as he grew more isolated from objective counsels and began to suffer the classic paranoia of the despot. The quickening tempo of Sheikh Mujib’s efforts since early June to insure his stranglehold on power, together with the growing influence of his nephew Sheikh Moni, doubtless made the coup plotters conclude that no further delays in taking action was possible. That India’s independence day was chosen may have been merely incidental, but we note the coincidence.

2. It is too early to offer any sure opinions on the direction of events. The new civilian government under Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed seems little likely to arouse any sense of enthusiasm. Although purged—by death or exclusion—of those who were closest to Sheikh Mujib, it is still a collection of overly familiar figures who are identified with the poor administration of post-liberation Bangladesh. Clearly, its composition is intended to suggest that Bangladesh under Mushtaque will offer continuity, but also that there will be greater moderation. Mushtaque’s radio address late on August 15 (Dacca 3955) supports this view, condemning as it does the domestic consequences of Sheikh Mujib’s rule but clearly suggesting that insofar as foreign affairs are concerned, business will be much as usual. There is already some evidence that the new government will want to strengthen its ties with the Muslim world, including Pakistan. At the same time, Mushtaque’s well-known antipathy to India notwithstanding, the new regime will not want to arouse undue suspicions on the part of India, clearly cognizant of the importance of preserving an adequate measure of goodwill on the part of its imposing neighbor. (Perhaps one reason for the composition of the Cabinet, with its exclusive reliance on old faces, is a hope to demonstrate to India its basic continuity.) Insofar as the major powers are concerned, Mushtaque has stated his government’s desire to establish “closer and friendly relations with the big powers like the United States, the Soviet Union and China.” This would seem to mean more balance in its relations, and thus some diminution in the influence of the Soviet Union.

3. The evidence so far suggests the possibility that our own relations with the new government could turn out to be on an even more cordial basis than they were under Mujib. The new President has in the past been strikingly overt in suggesting his “pro-American” attitude; moreover, the figures in the old regime who were known for their leftist and anti-American views (Sheikh Moni and Samad, example) are now gone. The possibility is also strong that they will look to us for even larger amounts of aid—Mushtaque has argued with us before that we are the only ones who can truly help Bangladesh—so that our problem may well prove to be one of tempering the new regime’s expectations of us.

4. We cannot presently judge the relationship between Mushtaque’s government and the military. We note with interest that every official statement stresses the role of the armed forces in the takeover. We are told that they military are at present engaged in preparing martial law orders which would, if the Pakistani pattern is followed, serve as basis law of the country. Whether this means a growth of tension between the civilians and the military we cannot yet say, but we would have thought that one of the first statements by Mushtaque would have been a promise of a new, more liberal constituation than that imposed last January by Mujib. The civilians probably have a momentary advantage in light of their experience; moreover, in the aftermath of the military’s successful ouster of Mujib, we are left with the impression that the coup planners prepared for little beyond the event itself. However, the military—and by this we mean the younger officers who planned and led coup—did work the overthrow of Sheikh Mujib, and we suspect that, having tasted blood, they will want at the very least to exercise some measure of influence over the course of events. We have no reason to look for Bangalee Quaddafis among the coup planners; rather, as members of the old, service-oriented middle class which was threatened by Sheikh Mujib, they may prove a more moderate force than has been seen in East Bengal since Pakistani period.

5. One point to be emphasized is that, while the overthrow of Sheikh mujib was successful, if bloodly, a great deal remains to be done. Mushtaque’s speech is significant largely for its generalities and its echoes of earlier Awami League rhetoric, but concrete actions have so far been few. We are not surprised that the degree of direction displayed so far is limited for we have every reason to think that those privy to the planning of the coup were small in number and thus the opportunity for preparing any elaborate plans for the governace of Bangladesh was very small. However, unless early steps are taken to demonstrate vigor and will, the advantage now held by the new regime will begin to diminish, and we may confront an unsettled—and unsettling—situation as contenders for power emerge. No one now on the Banglaee politiical stage has kind of commanding personality which sustained Sheikh Mujib for so long. The civliam government falters, we may find the military concluding that is must again save the nation.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files. Confidential; Priority. It was repeated to Islamabad, Katmandu, New Delhi, Calcutta, and CINCPAC.
  2. The Embassy provided for the Department early analysis of the August 15 coup against President Mujibur Rahman. It tentatively predicted that the United States would enjoy greater influence under the government of new president Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed.