Pro-US Ershad as a general, politician, and poet - interview
Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, chief martial-law administrator of Bangladesh, proclaimed himself President in December. He has now begun campaigning, somewhat after the fact.Skip to next paragraph
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His helicopter hops from village to village, as General Ershad attempts to establish a political power base, giving clear evidence to most Bangladeshis that he intends to shed his uniform and run for president in national elections scheduled for May 27. Between trips to the hustings and meetings with constitutional experts on institutionalizing a power-sharing scheme to ensure the armed forces a permanent political role, General Ershad talked to this reporter at his home in Dacca recently.
It is the same house - inside the military cantonment - from which he planned his military takeover of March 24, 1982. It is the comfortable, yet unpretentious official residence of the Army chief of staff.
Following are excerpts from the interview, conducted before Feb. 29, when General Ershad announced he would lift a ban on political activity March 26:
You've recently expelled 14 Soviet diplomats and closed the Soviet cultural center in Dacca. The Soviets have retaliated by canceling an agreement for the import of Bangladeshi jute. Why have relations so soured?
We are a poor country, with definite leanings toward the West. We're very good friends with the United States and China, and we wanted to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union as well.
But friendship cannot be at the expense of your sovereignty and independence, regardless of how poor or how small you are. I went the extra measure to improve relations with the Soviets after coming to power. We signed a new cultural treaty.
Then, with no forewarning, they started to openly, I repeat openly, disperse money among the people to revolt against my government, to destroy government property. In short, to bring me down.
Why do the Soviets want to overthrow you?
They've been interested in this strip of territory since the days of Peter the Great.
Look at a map. On our east is a Soviet-oriented government in the Indian state of Tripura. To our west, the left-front government of India's West Bengal. To our north, (the Indian state of) Assam is in turmoil, turmoil being fermented , I tell you, by Soviet influence.
The whole region is in turmoil - Afghanistan, Thailand, Vietnam - and the Soviets know that I'm Western-oriented. They want someone here, in my position, who toes the Soviet line.
Do you have evidence they're trying to unseat you?
Yes, of course I do. They were openly distributing money at their cultural center the week leading up to Nov. 28th (when rioting crowds attacked the central government secretariat, and, after only a two-week hiatus, political activity was banned again).
This was not the usual political demonstration with students in the forefront. These were outsiders, hoodlums, bought, paid for, and sent to the streets by the Soviet cultural center. It was their revenge after my very successful (October) visit to the United States.
Did you find President Reagan sympathetic to these concerns?
I found him very sympathetic. He understands our problems and has assured me of all future support.
What kind of support?
That which you'd expect from a friend. We are a nation struggling to be on our feet. We want to be self-reliant as much as possible: to develop an infrastructure in industry and food. We want to be self-sufficient. And the United States, which has been a good friend of Bangladesh since independence, has given us very liberal aid. It will continue to come forward to assist us. Of this I am sure.
Does this include a rumored arms purchase accord?
Arms, quite frankly, are not very important to Bangladesh. What is important is how we live, how we survive. We need only a small army for internal security. We don't need arms of US caliber.
And, let's be perfectly frank. If someone, a large power, invaded across our borders, what could we do? Wasting money on useless arms purchases is not what Bangladesh needs. It needs to develop, and we've begun the process. We're no longer a basket case.
Yet, despite your warming relations with Washington, there are still some areas of US concern. . . . You are an absolute military ruler, you've suspended the Constitution and rule under martial law.
I announced dates for elections, without anyone asking - not Washington, not our own political elite. If our politicians are going to boycott the elections, that's their decision, not mine.
But how can elections be contested, when you've banned all political activity , forced the parties into little more than parlor politics. You can address large crowds in the country. The politicians say this is a bit unfair.
But I did open politics (on Nov. 14, then banned them again on Nov. 28). And you saw what happened. So, until they come to their senses, until they realize that politics is not burning government buildings, attacking the central secretariat, calling strikes. . . . Until that time ''open politics'' will remain banned.