Dacca, Bangladesh — 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.
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.
But you just said that the Nov. 28 violence was caused not by the politicians , but by agents provocateurs. You have blamed the Soviet Union.
Yes, but the politicians were there. Both Sheikh Hasina (Wajed) and Begum Khaleda Zia were present. (The two women - one an eldest daughter and the other a widow of assassinated presidents of Bangladesh - are General Ershad's most formidable opponents.)
So you will not permit ''open politics'' before either the presidential or parliamentary election?
Yes, yes, I will open politics (starting March 26). Why not? I gave them ''open politics'' before they wanted it. I gave them dates for elections. . . . I'm not on a weak wicker. I've worked very hard for this country.
They've called two to three strikes, and nobody came. Don't base your opinion on what is happening in this country on the opinion of the Dacca Club elite.
People want food. They want clothes and shelter.
Urban politics are over in Bangladesh.
Our attention must be diverted to the villages. . . . And the US government need not be concerned. They know my mind very well.
If you are willing to ''open politics'' prior to the elections, are you also willing to lift martial law?
Absolutely not. I declared martial law because this country was going to the dogs. If there was no martial law, who would run the country between now and the elections? Who would hold the elections? There'd be no government. We'd be back to the Stone Age. As happened in the past, martial law will be lifted the day the new parliament is convened.
Is it a bit unnerving to you, a general, in a male-dominated part of the world, to have two women as your most serious and strongest opponents?
Well, it's a bit different.
But it's happening all over the subcontinent. Indira Gandhi in India. The Bhutto women and the Begum Walid Khan are among General Zia's most forceful opponents today in Pakistan. President Jayewardene of Sri Lanka has Mrs. Bandaranaike. . . .
Well, let me say first and foremost, Mrs. Gandhi is there on her own merit. The Bhutto women? I'd prefer not commenting on them. But, in Bangladesh, politics are inherited. (Though this) probably will not gain momentum anymore. . . .
Our country is beset with problems. It needs strong handling. Just because so-and-so is the wife or the daughter of someone, they do not have the right to become the political inheritors of this country. They can come up politically and, if they receive the people's confidence, then, why not?
So it's not the portent of the end of male dominance on the subcontinent?
Good Lord, no. It's just coincidence.
But it does show that we're very liberal-minded. If a woman's competent enough, why not?
What is the key to ruling a country like Bangladesh, probably the world's only nation that twice achieved independence - with all of its bloodshed and turmoil - in less than 25 years?
You cannot rule Bangladesh from a pedestal. You must be one of them, a man from amongst the people, a simple man, with a heart, a good mind. Then, and only then, can you win over the people. Then you can rule them. Our people cannot be bluffed. If you're sincere, even if they're suffering, they'll accept you for what you are.
What is the greatest source of suffering here today?
Population. (Given its size and 100 million people, Bangladesh is the world's most overpopulated country).
But we are making progress. Last month alone, 64,000 people were sterilized or began using birth control. Our target was 60,000, so we're well above achieving 100 percent.
Our annual rate of population growth is now 2.7 percent. Our target is that by 1986 or 1987 it will be down to 1.5 percent.
We have to do it. Otherwise, our very existence as a country will be threatened and, I think, there is now a real awareness of the dangers lying ahead.
If we can hold population and increase our food output, we've solved our problems. On food, we're now only 2 million tons short (per year). We produced 15.1 million tons last year. This year, we hope it's up to 16 million, and we only need 17 million.
It's not an impossible dream. We can do it, and I want to show the world that we can do it. I want to show the United States. I want to say, ''You assisted us , and we did it. It wasn't a mistake.''
Why do you write poetry?
I'm a Bengali. I have poetry in my blood. This didn't stop just because I joined the army 32 years ago. I continued writing, though I never published anything until two to three years ago. I began as the typical undergraduate poet - emotional, romantic, poems of sentiment. But now, they're mostly about my country and people.
My heart aches when I see the suffering in this country. So, poetry is a way to express my sorrow, my grief. But I can also express my determination to help my people. . . . It's an expression of my emotions. It's all there.