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Anatomy of a Coup: A Journey of a Quarter Century

Posted below is a very valuable 6 part article by Lawrence Lifschultz the well known South Asia scholar and journalist. The article was published in the prominent Bangaldesh newspaper The Daily Star. ______________________ Part 1. The coup happened on one of those hot sweltering monsoon nights that blow up each summer from the Bay of Bengal. It was a quiet evening and the political talk in the tea shops of Dhaka that day was about Mujib's speech planned for the next morning at the university. Life had become difficult in Bangladesh and people wondered if one of the left wing underground parties might try to make trouble during the university ceremony. But, otherwise, the night did not seem very different from many others that summer. In the autumn of 1975, a few months after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a young Bengali stood in front of a hotel in Sacramento, California. His name was Robi Chakravorti. He was the only Bengali in a small crowd that had gathered to hear the last speech of Jimmy Carter's campaign for President of the United States. Carter had stopped over in Sacramento, capital of California, the night before the election. "It was a routine campaign speech," wrote Chakravorti four years later in the Calcutta weekly, Frontier. "But a part of it sticks in my memory. He [Carter] said that he would stop undercover operations of the type for which the CIA had been criticized 'whether in Chile or Bangladesh'. I vividly remember the juxtaposition of those two countries. Reports of CIA involvement in one was well known but in the other it was a matter of gossip and speculation among Indian and Bangladeshi journalists." Standing only a few feet from Carter, Chakravorti is quite certain that he heard Carter correctly. Carter's "reference to Bangladesh... puzzled me to no end," recalled Chakravorti. "The association of Chile with Bangladesh surprised me. I thought it could be a slip of the tongue or a matter of rhetoric. In either case, I wondered, why a tongue-twisting name like Bangladesh over names which are easier to pronounce? Another interpretation... was that as a Presidential candidate, Carter was briefed regularly by the Ford Administration, that he learnt about CIA operations in Bangladesh and deliberately included it in his speech for effect." In fact, during a presidential campaign in the United States, the two leading candidates are regularly provided intelligence briefings by the CIA, even when the candidates are neither a sitting President nor a Vice-President. The 1975 campaign was no exception. During the summer and autumn of that year, Jimmy Carter, the candidate, received regular intelligence briefings from the CIA. Two years after Chakravorti stood listening to Carter under a California

sun, this writer sat down at the US State Department in Washington with an American diplomat who had served in a senior position at the American Embassy in Dhaka in August 1975. We had met previously when I was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong). We were joined by my colleague, the American writer and journalist, Kai Bird, who was then an editor at The Nation magazine in New York. Our diplomatic source was a serious and troubled man. He was distressed about the way Mujib and much of his family had died. Moreover, he was disturbed by what he knew about prior contacts and relationships between US Embassy personnel and the group that had planned the coup d'etat. We had encountered a rare item. An American government official with a conscience. As we talked, he set out before us the pieces of a puzzle. The challenge was for us to pick them up and to begin piecing them together. Clearly, the man before us knew selected parts of a greater puzzle. But, what he knew was crucial. The story, as we knew it, of the coup d'etat which killed Mujibur Rahman was unraveling and taking a new shape. Stories get told and stories get reported. Frequently, a foreign correspondent, trying to penetrate the surface appearance of a complex set of events filled with their own macabre web of killings and betrayals, fails at first to get the reports right. A coup d'etat or a midnight murder occurring in distant spots at moments of unexpected crisis, are often reported with little real accuracy at the time. Few writers go back to those reports, once put on page one to discover later that the real story was a very different one. Just such a case occurred a quarter century ago on the night of 14 August 1975. Martin Woollacott and I filed one of the most detailed reports of what happened for The Guardian (London). It ran as the lead story on page one for August 23, 1975. I also filed a report for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Looking back, we certainly missed a great deal. As with all such events when they happened, no one except the actual participants knew what had really gone on. Curious and skeptical I began to retrace my steps to look again at the story of Sheikh Mujib's death. The coup happened on one of those hot sweltering monsoon nights that blow up each summer from the Bay of Bengal. It was a quiet evening and the political talk in the tea shops of Dhaka that day was about Mujib's speech planned for the next morning at the university. Life had become difficult in Bangladesh and people wondered if one of the left wing underground parties might try to make trouble during the university ceremony. But, otherwise, the night did not seem very different from many others that summer. Yet, life in Dhaka did take a sudden turn that August evening. For many who only four years earlier had celebrated Bangladesh's independence their lives would never again be quite the same. Just after midnight the Bengal Lancers and the Bangladesh Armoured Corps slowly trundled out of the capital's main cantonment toward the runways of the abandoned half-built second airport on the capital's edge. As they lined up in formation on the main runway, the commanding officer of the column, Major Farooq, stood on a tank and told his men that on this very evening they would overthrow Mujib's government. It was a fire-eating speech and by the time Farooq had finished they were ready to go. They move out and split into three columns. Within three hours Mujib and many of his

family would be dead. ----------Part 2. THE "official story" that emerged at the time was that six junior officers with three hundred men under their command had acted on their own in overthrowing Mujib. The motives for the coup were attributed to a mixture of personal grudges held by certain of the officers against Mujib and his associates, together with a general mood of frustration at widespread allegations of corruption among elements within the Mujib government. In reporting the coup no foreign or Bengali journalist probed beyond the most superficial aspects of what had happened. What contacts the officers had made before August, and which politicians had been contacted, were simply not explored. The version of events that the "Majors" had acted alone without prior political planning was a unexa mined myth that came to stand as fact. The morning Mujib and much of his family were killed, the figure installed by the young majors as President was Khondakar Mustaque, generally considered to be the representative of the rightist faction within Mujib's Awami League. After the putsch, Mustaque remained impeccably reticent about any part he personally might have played in Mujib's downfall. He neither confirmed nor denied his prior involvement. He simply avoided any public discussion of the question and desperately attempted to stabilize his regime. In June 1976, nearly a year after Mujib had been killed and eight months after Mustaque had himself been thrown out of the presidency by another military upheaval, I interviewed Mustaque for three hours at his residence in old Dhaka. He denied to me any knowledge of the coup plan or prior meeting with the army majors who carried out the action. Mustaque claimed that he was as surprised as everyone else on the morning of the 15th, and had acceded to the major's request to assume the Presidency only to avoid further bloodshed in the country. "When they came to my house that morning," Mustaque told me, "I thought they had also come to kill me. I was completely surprised when they asked me to become President." The man was lying. The Majors and their associates ultimately told a very different story which was at wide variance with Mustaque's account. In a series of interviews conducted from exile in London for British television in August 1976 by The Sunday Times journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas, the Majors claimed they were in direct contact with Mustaque in the weeks prior to the coup. Major Rashid told Mascarenhas, "I had the first contact with him [Mustaque] around the first week of August and subsequently met him on the 13th and 14th." However, Rashid's public statements to Mascarenhas about his contact with Mustaque was itself only partially true. Prior meetings between Mustaque and the Majors did occur. However, the first contacts between Major Rashid and Mustaque were not in August but much earlier. This new information is based on a detailed interview with an acutely knowledgeable Bangladeshi military officer, now living in exile, who was present during meetings between Rashid and Mustaque, and subsequent

encounters between Rashid and senior army officers. The interview took place in a European capital in 1997. Indeed, throughout the latter part of '74 and the first half of '75, the Majors had held simultaneous discussions with both Mustaque and senior military figures, such as General Ziaur Rahman, more than six months prior to the actual coup. Of course, these were not the only crucial meetings taking place during 1974 and 1975. According to our senior American Embassy source, officials at the American Embassy were approached by people intending to overthrow the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This source stated that a series of meetings took place with Embassy personnel between November 1974 and January 1975. These discussions were held with the purpose of determining the attitude of the US Government towards a political change in Bangladesh if a coup d'etat were actually to happen. ---------Part 3. The contacts occurred during the period in which the Church and Pike Congressional Committee hearing in Washington on CIA assassinations of foreign leaders were gearing up. The committee hearings were having their own impact within the American diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracies, creating great nervousness and anxiety. The American press was openly speculating that senior American intelligence officials might face imprisonment for illegal clandestine action in Chile and elsewhere. According to this senior Embassy official, the American Ambassador, Davis Eugene Booster, gave strict orders that all contacts with the group planning the coup be broken off. "In January 1975 we came to an understanding in the embassy that we would stay out of it," said our source. "I can't say there was any approach to the embassy by any of these people in the period from January to August. In the period before that they did try to approach us." Another Embassy source claimed that while contact was broken off at the level of diplomatic and foreign service officials who wished to remain "clean", liaison was taken over and carried on through the channel of the American Embassy's CIA Station Chief, Philip Cherry and other station agents. Indeed, Embassy sources claim that Ambassador Boster was deeply disturbed to see that the men who were at the centre of the coup in August were precisely those with whom six months earlier he had ordered all contact be broken. An Embassy source, who worked closely with Boster, claimed the Ambassador believed the CIA Station had acted behind his back, possibly with "back channel" authority from CIA headquarters in Langley or from Washington. When I interviewed Philip Cherry in September 1978, he categorically denied these allegations. "We had no Bangladeshi come into the office and tell us anything about any plans for coups or anything like that," he said. "We had all kinds of Bangladeshi coming into the office, but not for that reason. If anyone like that had come in, I would have heard from my colleagues who were there before, they would have been listened to but told to go away."

Cherry did, however, add an important qualification. "There is one thing," he said. "There are politicians who frequently approach embassies, and perhaps have contacts there. They think they may have contacts. But that's a far cry from any of those embassies involved in assisting them in involvement in a coup. A political officer's job is to assist his government by providing information on what is going on a good political officer has many contacts. But that does not mean he is advising these politicians or coup leaders to overthrow governments." Indeed, Khondakar Mustaque had an important basis on which to "think he had contacts." For years among those familiar with the events of Pakistan's civil war, there had circulated vague stories and rumours of secret contacts and negotiations carried out by the Americans in 1971. However, there had never been any precise information confirming the existence and nature of these contacts. Yet, according to documents contained in an unpublished study commissioned by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading American foreign policy research institution, the existence of these links were definitively established. In 1973 the Carnegie Endowment commissioned a study of the conduct of US policy during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis to examine the process whereby the US "tilt" toward Pakistan virtually countenanced genocide. The project was directed by Roger Morris, a former National Security Council aide to Henry Kissinger. Morris had resigned from Kissinger's staff due to sharp differences with Kissinger following the invasion of Cambodia by American military forces in 1970. Due to internal dissension at Carnegie the nine-month study was never completed, despite the fact that over 150 senior officials from the State Department to the Central Intelligence Agency had been interviewed in detail. What the Carnegie documents made unequivocally clear is that secret contacts were made in 1971 with a faction of the Bangladesh Provisional Government in the hope of splitting the independence movement. The US contacts were made with the Mustaque faction of the Awami League in Calcutta and were highly sensitive since they bypassed the dominant leadership of the provisional government, in the person of the then Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed. Tajuddin and virtually the entire Bengali leadership were adamant regarding complete independence. The refusal of the Pakistan authorities in March 1971 to accept the results of the elections (which would have made Mujib the prime minister of all Pakistan), combined with the brutal magnitude of the repression, made the Provisional Government's standpoint clear and unconditional: there would be no negotiated solution short of full independence for Bangladesh. The solitary exception to this among the exiled Bengali leadership was Khondakar Mustaque. Henry Kissinger then working with Pakistan's military junta, through whom he was simultaneously channelling the most sensitive negotiations of his career those with China began an exercise aimed at dividing the exiled Awami League on the question of independence. Absolute discretion and secrecy was the key to splitting the Bengali leadership and supporting that faction which would be prepared to compromise with Pakistan and not demand full independence. ----------

Part 4. However, Mustaque's secret liaison was discovered in October 1971 and he was placed under virtual house arrest in Calcutta. According to Herb Gordon, the American Consul General in Calcutta, the secret contacts with Mustaque were handled by the senior political officer at the Consulate, George Griffin. Although Gordon knew little about what had transpired during these discussions, he knew that Griffin had handled them. A decade later Griffin would be at the centre of a diplomatic storm between Washington and New Delhi when he was denied permission by India to take up a posting at the US Embassy. According to India Today, India denied Griffin permission to live in New Delhi due to "griffin's questionable role during the 1971 Bangladesh War." During my three hour interview with Mustaque at his home in Dhaka in 1976, Mustaque confirmed the contacts that had taken place in Calcutta in 1971, but refused to specify what had been agreed with the Americans at the time. "If you want to know," Mustaque told me, "You should go ask Nixon. I am not going to tell you." Although some American scholars have questioned the relative importance of these contacts, a newly declassified "Memorandum for the Record" describes in detail a White House meeting on August 11, 1971 specifically held to discuss the Bangladesh crisis. It was attended by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Harold Saunders, among others. In the document, John Irwin, Under Secretary of State, is quoted as saying, "We have had reports in recent days of the possibility that some Awami League leaders in Calcutta want to negotiate with Yahya on the basis of giving up their claim for the independence of East Pakistan." According to a member of Mustaque's 1971 Calcutta staff who this correspondent interviewed in 1976, Irwin's reference to "some Awami League leaders in Calcutta" referred only to Khondaker Mustaque Ahmed and his two leading proteges from the days of the Calcutta liaison -- Mahbub Alam Chashi and Taheruddin Thakur. Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Mustaque was pardoned by Mujib for his indiscretions but given only minor positions in the post-independence regime. Yet, four years later it was Mustaque, together with Chashi and Thakur, who emerged as the political leadership of the putsch which killed Mujib. In the immediate post-coup period Mustaque appointed to leading positions in the bureaucracy and national intelligence organisations people who had been prominent among the Bengali "Vichy" of 1971 -- the minute per cent of the Bengali population who had actually collaborated with the Pakistan Army following Pakistan's crackdown in Dacca in March 1971. Among these were AMS Safdar, Director-General of the National Security Intelligence (NSI) agency, and Shaiful Azam, former chief secretary of the East Pakistan government during the period of the civil war. A cohesive right-wing political and intelligence group, which had risen to prominence in the Pakistan period and were swept aside by Mujib after independence in 1971, finally staged the coup in August 1975, in alliance with a faction of Mujib's party, and reinstated themselves in power. What happened in August 1975 was by no means as simple as it was

once made to appear. The version accepted by both the foreign and Bengali press was a simple story, Mujib's regime was in trouble. The country had just suffered a famine that had killed an estimated 50,000 peasants, for which government incompetence and corruption was blamed. Democratic rights were increasingly being crushed by the authorities who were closing newspapers and locking Mujib's opponents away. Civil unrest and rural insurgency were growing problems. In this atmosphere, so the story went, six young majors with 300 men under their command took it upon themselves to organise a putsch, acting with a mixture of motives stretching from personal embitterment to their own Messianic delusions of Islamic Bonapartism. The story emphasised that they had acted alone and unilaterally, and that after the killing of Mujib they suddenly decided to pick up Kondakar Mustaque as a replacement. In taking on the presidency, Mustaque was portrayed with all the innocence of a victim of circumstance. But whether Mustaque had himself taken part in a complicated plan nearly a year old, involving a variety of links, remained unexamined. In 1997, this correspondent met an unquestionably authoritative source with intimate and direct knowledge of the planning of the coup. This individual, a retired Bangladeshi military officer, was the consummate "insider" to the events of August 1975, and the planning which preceded it. I had met this individual briefly in 1975 and had hoped to meet him again. However, twenty-two years would elapse before a meeting was ultimately arranged. After prolonged negotiations through intermediaries I flew from the United States and made contact with this individual in a European capital. Our meeting lasted five hours. Many new insights were gained and many old ones were confirmed. Among the many things that he talked about my source described how both Mustaque and General Ziaur Rahman had been in contact and discussions with the Majors for more than six months prior to the actual coup. This individual had personally attended numerous meetings that Major Rashid had held separately with Zia and Mustaque. In his television interview with Anthony Mascarenhas, Rashid described a meeting with General Zia on March 20, 1975, in which a coup was discussed in detail. This meeting took place five months before the coup. My source attended this meeting with General Zia but claimed it was not the first in which plans for a coup were discussed. General Zia, who was then Deputy Chief of the Army, expressed continuing interest in the proposed coup plan, but also expressed reluctance to take the lead in the required military action. The junior officers had already worked out a plan, Rashid told Zia, and they wanted his support and leadership. Zia temporised. According to the account given by Rashid to Mascarenhas and confirmed by my source, Zia told him that as a senior officer he could not be directly involved but if they junior officers were prepared, they should go ahead. ---------

Part 5. ACCORDING to my unusual source, the Majors hoped right up until the end that Zia would take the lead in the coup. Their view was that the best option would be not to bring in Mustaque with whom they were in constant, yet discreet, contact. The best option from the Majors perspective was to establish a Military Council as the commanding authority after the coup. In fact, it was largely Rashid who was in charge of defining the options for his group. It was their hope that Zia would lead such a council. While the junior officers might have preferred a senior officers' coup with Zia at the head, they secured the next best option. With General Zia's neutrality or even tacit support assured, the junior officers could move ahead without fear that Zia would throw his forces against them at the crucial moment. My unusual source made a rather interesting comment when he noted that he had been present during two different meetings- one with Zia and a separate one on a different day with Mustaque-in which Major Rashid independently raised a question concerning what the attitude of the United States would be to the planned coup. "Both Zia and Mustaque independently told us that they had checked with the Americans," said this military officer. "Their answers were the Americans. I then realized that Zia and Mustaque had their separate channels to the Americans. After that the subject didn't come up again." The Majors hoped until the last that Zia would take command of a new military Council that would be set-up in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Even on August 15th they believed this was still a possibility. But, according to this source3, Zia stepped back into the shadows once it emerged that a massacre had occurred at Mujib's house and the houses of other relatives in which women and children were mercilessly killed alongside their menfolk. According to this source, Rashid himself was shocked at the killings and believed in the years that followed that there had been a "hidden plan" submerged within the coup that he neither knew about nor controlled. Nevertheless, neither Rashid nor Farooq, the two military principals of August 15th, did not publicly disown the killing of the families. Walking on thin ice they were not about to disown the action of the small contingent of soldiers which were solidly behind them and now deeply implicated in an action that Rashid and Farooq had led them into. Indeed, this source claims, killings were planned for August 15th. At least four Awami League leaders were to be removed from their residences and taken to a designated location where they would be executed. This plan included the killing of Sheikh Mujib. However, this source claims there was no premeditated plan among the officers organizing the coup to fire weapons on the families. As in all such situations, the unpredictable ruled and brutality took command. After the coup there was very little analysis of the contradictory phenomena which existed. Ignored was the stark juxtaposition that, in the two years prior to the coup, it was the country's organized left wing parties such as the JSD, the National Awami Party Bhashani), and the underground organizations like the Sharbohara Party, which had developed and mobilized public sentiment against Mujib's regime; yet,

when the critical moment of collapse came for Mujib, it was not from a leftist mass uprising-"The Revolution"- as had been feared, but from a narrowly-based conspiracy of the right. The challenge being developed and prepared by radical nationalist forces was preempted by the August events. The coup itself was an inside job by right wing elements within Mujib's own party, his own cabinet, his own secretariat, and his own national intelligence service, who viewed Mujib's leadership as no longer capable of holding out against a left wing challenge to their interests. Whether or not the United States had prior knowledge of these plans-given the assertions of State Department sources and the counter assertions of CIA officials-could never be conclusively settled without the power of Congressional subpoena. (See accompanying article: "The Solarz Correspondence: A Congressional Investigation Deliberately Derailed?" But, one thing is clear beyond a doubt that the United States had important prior relationships with the political and intelligence leadership of the coup. In my interview with Phil Cherry, the CIA Station Chief, he insisted throughout that he had been completely under the supervision of the US Ambassador. "We knew that Mujib was in trouble. We also knew that no matter what happened there, no matter who overthew Mujib, or what overthrew Mujib, we also knew we would be blamed for it.... So we were extra extra careful to be super clean. To make sure all of us were directed by Ambassador Boster. To cut any contact which would possibly give credence to the theory we knew was going to come about. We indeed followed Ambassador Boster's instructions." The difficulty with Cherry's statement is that in 1980 the State Department admitted to US Congressman Stephen Solarz that meeting had taken place in the period between November 1974 and January 1975, precisely as our key Embassy source had reported to US. The State Department's admission to Solarz flatly contradicted Cherry's statement that "we had no Bangladeshi come into the office and tell us anything about any plans for coups or anything like that." -------Part 6. FURTHERMORE one of our American diplomatic sources who had also served in the US Embassy bluntly disputed Cherry's denials. He told us that Ambassador Boster suspected that Cherry had not followed his instructions. "We should always be informed by the Station Chief about his activities or contacts. But, I cannot guarantee that Cherry was not making contacts that were not approved by the Ambassador." If this, is fact, had occurred it would hardly have been a novel incident in the annals of American foreign policy. Congressional investigators studying US-backed coup initiatives in Chile in 1970 and 1973 unearthed explicit directives from Nixon and Kissinger tot he Central Intelligence Agency that the US Ambassador, Edward Korry, and other foreign service officials in the embassy should be kept in the dark about covert operations then being put into motion. Had bolster been played like another Korry?

This dualism has been the centre of intense antagonism between the State Department and the US intelligence community for decades. Besides the Chilean experience, there have been instances in many countries where clandestine CIA operations have been carried forward, quite independent of the knowledge of ambassadors or reluctant political staffs, who might have qualms or may be unreliable from a security and secrecy point of view. In such instances, the US diplomatic corps serves as a well dressed "fig leaf" for covert operations. In 1979 and 1980 I published a series of articles in the European, American and South Asian press on the intrigue behind the army coup which toppled Sheikh Mujib. I also published a book which examined these questions in some detail. Unfortunately, readers in Bangladesh were denied access to this material for many years. Indeed, I was banned from the country or more than a decade and my writings were censored from the press. The sordid details surrounding the coup against Mujib were taboo subjects during the military and quasai-military regimes which ruled Bangladesh through the 1970's and 1980's. A time has come to write a new chapter in the relationship between Bangladesh the United States. When Bill Clinton visited Dhaka last March, 1 wrote in Prothom Alo that "the real road to a better relationship between the two countries will be best served by clearing up the record of the past." The prime Minister of Bangladesh is uniquely placed to raise this issue. Twenty-five years ago, her mother, her father, and many members of her family were killed, including her twelve year old brother. Sheikh Hasina and others have a right to know that happened. Last year in Guatemala, President Clinton publicly apologized for American involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the Arbenz government and the subsequent terror that a series of American backed military regimes inflicted upon Guatemala's population. It is conservatively estimated that more than 100,0000 people lost their lives in the decades of military rule that followed the coup. Perhaps, the moment is not yet ripe for an apology to be offered by the United States to Bangladesh. The time may yet come. But, a definitive accounting is due. The Solarz Correspondence is a clear and definitive starting point. It's significance is that the United States government for the first time admitted that there were Embassy meetings in 1974 and 1975 with opponents of Mujib's regime. Hitherto the only mention in the public domain of such meetings came from our confidential Embassy sources. We published their statements. Yet, our sources also claimed quite specifically that these Embassy meetings took place with representatives of Khondaker Mustaque Ahmed. Is the American government prepared to reveal the nature of these meeting which took place prior to the coup? Who were the participants on the both sides? What were the questions explored? Was a red, an amber, or a green light given? was an impression communicated that if a coup d'etat took place it " was 'not a problem' for the Americans"? was a quiet "nod" given at the appropriate moment? Were Ambassador Boster's instructions ignored? If so, by whom? The time has come for democratic representatives in Bangladesh to publicly challenge American democracy to be open about its past actions. A mature

and sophisticated approach is required that recognizes that there are many Americans who would approve and support an open accounting of this painful chapter in US-Bangladesh relations. These include Members of Congress, journalists, academic, and human rights organizations. A quarter century has passed. It is time to open the book. Concluded (The writer is presently working as a Research Associate at the Yale Centre for International and Area Studies, Yale University. He was recently named a Fulbright Scholar for South Asia. )