Loss for Bangladesh

Assassination is an insane and cowardly act wherever it occurs. When it is directed against an honest and able leader who was helping to lift his country out of abject poverty, it not only is abhorrent but damages all citizens of a nation. The people of Bangladesh will feel deeply the tragedy of the senseless murder of President Ziaur Rahman.

Bangladesh from the time of its founding in 1971 largely had the reputation, to use Henry Kissinger's phrase, of an economic "basket case." Famines, floods, destitution, overcrowding, chaos -- these came most frequently to mind whenever outsiders thought about it, if they ever did.

Yet quietly, almost unnoticed, President Zia (not to be confused with his counterpart in Pakistan) has begun to turn Bangladesh around. He pledged to make his country of 90 million people self-sufficient in food. Indeed this year Bangladesh recorded a modest grain surplus and even asked Western donors to postpone food aid. To accomplish this -- one of the most heartening success stoties in the third world -- Zia traveled extensively, even to remote villages, encouraging the peasants and preaching a revolutionary message of self-help. He was hard-working and, by all accounts, incorruptible.

President Zia did not have a reputation for ruthlessness. He had relinquished martial law powers and held fair elections. To be sure, the Constitution provides a strong presidential system and Parliament does not have much authority. Zia was powerful. But Bangladesh does have a representative system, the press is free, and opposition forces are permitted to be outspokenly critical. One can only concluded that those who gunned down the President, including the major general who led the coup, let their own lust for power overshadow all sense of patriotism and concern for the national interest.

It looks at this writing as if the Dacca government, in the hands of Acting President Abdus Sattar, will be able to contain the rebellion. The nation appears to be calm. But there could be unstable, troubling times ahead. The return to Bangladesh from India of Hasina Wazed, daughter of the country's first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who, ironically, was himself assassinated), adds another uncertain note to the political scene, especially against the background of tensions in Indo-Bangladesh relations.

In this dangerous situation well-wishers abroad hope that Bangladesh will let its constitutional system function. An orderly transition of power would help assure that Bangladesh preserves its fledgling democracy, however imperfect, and that the gains of the past are not lost in a brutal struggle for power. When a nation begins to make progress, it often happens that forces of envy and ambition seek to destroy it. The people of Bangladesh, who have accomplished so much, surely will find the wisdom and moral s trength not to let that happen.

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