U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Bangladesh, July 1996
Released by the Bureau of Public Affairs

Official Name: People's Republic of Bangladesh



Area: 143,998 sq. km. (55,813 sq. mi., about the size of Wisconsin).
Cities: Capital--Dhaka (pop. 7 million). Other cities--Chittagong  (2.8 
million), Khulna (1.8 million), Rajshahi (1 million).
Terrain: Mainly flat alluvial plain, with hills in the northeast and 
Climate: Semitropical, monsoonal.


Nationality: Noun and adjective--Bangladeshi(s).
Population: 120 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.1%.
Ethnic groups: Bengali 98%, tribal groups, non-Bengali Muslims.
Religions: Muslim 83%; Hindu 16%; Christian, Buddhist, others 1%.
Languages: Bangla (official, also known as Bengali), English.
Education: Attendance--73% (primary school), 17% (secondary 
school). Literacy--47% for males; 22% for females.
Health: Infant mortality rate--118/1,000. Life expectancy--55 years 
(male), 54 years (female).
Work force: 50 million. Agriculture--74%. Industry--11%. Services--


Type: Parliamentary democracy.
Independence: 1971, from Pakistan.
Constitution: 1972; amended 1974, 1979, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1996.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state), prime minister (head of 
government), cabinet. Legislative--unicameral parliament (330 
members). Judicial--civil court system based on British model.
Administrative subdivisions: Divisions, districts, subdistricts, unions, 
Political parties: 30-40 active political parties.
Suffrage: Universal at age 18.


GDP (1995): $28.2 billion.
Annual growth rate (1995): 4.4%.
Per capita GDP (1995): $233.
Natural resources: Natural gas, fertile soil, water.
Agriculture (37% of GDP): Products--rice, jute, tea, sugar, wheat. 
Land--cultivable area cropped at rate of 159% in 1987; largely 
subsistence farming dependent on monsoonal rainfall.
Industry (17% of GDP): Types--garments and knitwear, jute goods, 
frozen fish and seafood, textiles, fertilizer, sugar, tea, leather, 
shipbreaking for scrap, pharmaceuticals, ceramic tableware, newsprint.
Trade (1995): Merchandise exports--$3.1 billion: garments and 
knitwear, frozen fish, jute and jute goods, leather and leather 
tea, urea fertilizer, ceramic tableware. Exports to U.S.--$1.26 billion. 
Merchandise imports--$5.9 billion: capital goods, foodgrains, 
petroleum, textiles, chemicals, vegetable oils. Imports from U.S.--$325 
Official exchange rate (July 1996): 41.84 taka=U.S. $1.


Although the U.S. relationship with Bangladesh was initially troubled 
because of strong U.S. ties with Pakistan, U.S.-Bangladesh friendship 
and support developed quickly following Bangladesh's independence 
from Pakistan in 1971. U.S.-Bangladesh relations are excellent, as 
demonstrated by the visits to Washington, DC, in August 1980 by 
President Zia; in 1983, 1988, and 1990 by President Ershad; and in 
1992 by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. In 1995, First Lady Hillary 
Rodham Clinton visited Bangladesh. U.S. policy has focused primarily 
on efforts to promote Bangladesh's economic development and the 
strength of its democratic institutions.

The centerpiece of the bilateral relationship is a large U.S. economic 
aid program, totaling about $94 million in 1995. U.S. economic and 
food aid programs--which began as emergency relief following the 
1971 war for independence--now concentrate on long-term 
development. Objectives of U.S. assistance include stabilizing 
population growth, protecting human health, encouraging broad-based 
economic growth, and building democracy.

In total, the United States has provided more than $3.4 billion in food 
and development assistance to Bangladesh. Food aid under Titles I, II, 
and III of PL-480 (congressional "food-for-peace" legislation) has been 
designed to help Bangladesh meet minimum food requirements, 
promote food production, and moderate fluctuation in consumer prices. 
Other U.S. development assistance emphasizes family planning and 
health, agricultural development, and rural employment. The United 
States works with other donors and the Bangladesh Government to 
avoid duplication and ensure that resources are used to maximum 

Since 1986--with the exception of 1988-89, when an aircraft purchase 
made the trade balance even--the U.S. trade balance with Bangladesh 
has been negative, due largely to growing imports of ready-made 
garments.  Jute carpet-backing is the other major U.S. import from 
Bangladesh; total imports from Bangladesh were about $1.26 billion in 
1995. U.S. exports to Bangladesh (some $325 million in 1995) include 
wheat, fertilizer, cotton, communications equipment, aircraft, and 
medical supplies, a portion of which is financed by the U.S. Agency for 
International Development (USAID). A bilateral investment treaty was 
signed in 1989.

Relations between Bangladesh and the United States were further 
strengthened by the participation of Bangladesh troops in the 1991 
Gulf War coalition and the 1994 multinational force in Haiti as well as 
by the assistance of a U.S. Naval task force after a disastrous March 
1991 cyclone in Bangladesh. The relief efforts of U.S. troops are 
credited with having saved as many as 200,000 lives.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials

Ambassador--David N. Merrill
Deputy Chief of Mission--Nancy J. Powell
Political Counselor--Stephen Eisenbraun
Economic/Commercial Counselor--Cornelia M. Weierbach
Consular Officer--David R. Dreher
Administrative Counselor--Lawrence Blackburn
Regional Security Officer--William H. Lamb
Agricultural Attache--Thomas Pomeroy (resident in New Delhi, India)
USAID Director--Richard Brown
Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--Donald M. Bishop

The embassy and the USAID mission in Bangladesh are located in the 
diplomatic enclave, Madani Avenue, Baridhara, Dhaka; tel: 880-2-
884700; fax: 880-2-883744; USAID fax: 880-2-883648.

Historical and Cultural Highlights

The area which is now Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural 
past, combining Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Mongol/Mughul, Arab, 
Persian, Turkic, and West European cultures. Residents of Bangladesh, 
about 98% of whom are ethnic Bengali and speak Bangla, are called 
Bangladeshis. Urdu-speaking, non-Bengali Muslims of Indian origin 
and various tribal groups, mostly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, 
comprise the remainder. Most Bangladeshis (about 83%) are Muslims, 
but Hindus constitute a sizable (16%) minority. There are also a small 
number of Buddhists, Christians, and animists. English is spoken in 
urban areas and among the educated.

About 1200 AD, Muslim invaders, under Sufi influence, supplanted 
existing Hindu and Buddhist dynasties in Bengal. This incursion led to 
the conversion to Islam of most of the population in the eastern areas 
Bengal and created a sizable Muslim minority in the western areas of 
Bengal. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role in the region's 
history and politics.

Bengal was absorbed into the Mughul Empire in the 16th century, and 
Dhaka, the seat of a nawab (the representative of the emperor), gained 
some importance as a provincial center. But it remained a remote and 
thus difficult to govern region--especially the section east of the 
Brahmaputra River--outside the mainstream of Mughul politics.

Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first Europeans to reach 
Bengal, in the latter part of the 15th century. They were followed by 
representatives of the Dutch, the French, and the British East India 
Companies. By the end of the 17th century, the British presence on the 
Indian subcontinent was centered in Calcutta. During the 18th and 19th 
centuries, the British gradually extended their commercial contacts and 
administrative control beyond Calcutta to Bengal. In 1859, the British 
Crown replaced the East India Company, extending British dominion 
from Bengal--which became a region of India--in the east to the Indus 
River in the west.

The rise of nationalism throughout British-controlled India in the late 
19th century resulted in mounting animosity between the Hindu and 
Muslim communities. In 1885, the All-India National Congress was 
founded with Indian and British membership. Muslims seeking an 
organization of their own founded the All-India Muslim League in 
1906. Although both the League and the Congress supported the goal 
of Indian self-government within the British Empire, the two parties 
were unable to agree on a way to ensure the protection of Muslim 
political, social, and economic rights.

The subsequent history of the nationalist movement was characterized 
by periods of Hindu-Muslim cooperation as well as by communal 
antagonism. The idea of a separate Muslim state gained increasing 
popularity among Indian Muslims after 1936, when the Muslim League 
suffered a decisive defeat in the first elections under India's 1935 
constitution. In 1940, the Muslim League called for an independent 
state in regions where Muslims were in the majority. Campaigning on 
that platform in provincial elections in 1946, the League won the 
majority of the Muslim seats contested in Bengal. Widespread 
communal violence followed, especially in Calcutta.

When British India was partitioned and the independent dominions of 
India and Pakistan were created in 1947, the region of Bengal was 
divided along religious lines. The predominantly Muslim eastern half 
was designated East Pakistan--and made part of the newly independent 
Pakistan--while the predominantly Hindu western part became the 
Indian state of West Bengal.

Pakistan's history from 1947 to 1971 was marked by political 
instability and economic difficulties. Dominion status was rejected in 
1956 in favor of an "Islamic republic within the Commonwealth."  
Attempts at civilian political rule failed, and the government imposed 
martial law between 1958 and 1962, and again between 1969 and 

Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions 
developed between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by 
more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt 
by the West Pakistan-dominated central government. Linguistic, 
cultural, and ethnic differences also contributed to the estrangement of 
East from West Pakistan. Bengalis strongly resisted attempts to impose 
Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Responding to these 
grievances, Sheikh Mujibir Rahman--known widely as "Mujib"--in 
1949 formed the Awami League (AL), a party designed mainly to 
promote Bengali interests.

Mujib became president of the Awami League and emerged as leader 
of the Bengali autonomy movement. In 1966, he was arrested for his 
political activities. After the Awami League won all the East Pakistan 
seats of the Pakistan national assembly in 1970-71 elections, West 
Pakistan opened talks with the East on constitutional questions about 
the division of power between the central government and the 
provinces, as well as the formation of a national government headed by 
the Awami League.

The talks proved unsuccessful, however, and on March 1, 1971, 
Pakistani President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the pending 
national assembly session, precipitating massive civil disobedience in 
East Pakistan. Mujib was arrested again; his party was banned, and 
most of his aides fled to India, where they organized a provisional 
government. On March 26, 1971, following a bloody crackdown by the 
Pakistan army, Bengali nationalists declared an independent People's 
Republic of Bangladesh. As fighting grew between the army and the 
Bengali mukti bahini ("freedom fighters"), an estimated 10 million 
Bengalis, mainly Hindus, sought refuge in the Indian states of Assam 
and West Bengal.

The crisis in East Pakistan produced new strains in Pakistan's troubled 
relations with India. The two nations had fought a war in 1965, mainly 
in the west, but the refugee pressure in India in the fall of 1971 
produced new tensions in the east. Indian sympathies lay with East 
Pakistan, and in November, India intervened on the side of the 
Bangladeshis. On December 16, 1971, Pakistani forces surrendered and 
Bangladesh--meaning "Bengal nation"--was born; the new country 
became a parliamentary democracy under a 1972 constitution.


Although one of the world's poorest and most densely populated 
countries, Bangladesh has made major strides to produce domestically 
and import from abroad enough food to feed its rapidly increasing 
population. The land is devoted mainly to rice and jute cultivation, and 
the country is largely self-sufficient in rice production.

Nonetheless, an estimated 10% to 15% of the population faces serious 
nutritional risk. Bangladesh's predominantly agricultural economy 
depends heavily on an erratic monsoonal cycle, with periodic flooding 
and drought. Although improving, infrastructure to support 
transportation, communications, and power supply is poorly developed. 
The country has limited reserves of natural gas, coal, and oil. While 
Bangladesh's industrial base is weak, unskilled labor is inexpensive and 

Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has received more than $30 
billion in grant aid and loan commitments from foreign donors, about 
$15 billion of which has been disbursed. Major donors include the 
World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the UN Development 
Program, the United States, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and West European 

Bangladesh has historically run a large trade deficit, financed largely 
through aid receipts. In 1995, however, a combination of growing 
garment and other exports, slow capital imports, and aid flows resulted 
in the accumulation of significant international financial reserves. 

Land, Climate, and Demographics 

Bangladesh is a low-lying, riverine country located in South Asia with 
a largely marshy jungle coastline of 600 kilometers (370 mi.) on the 
northern littoral of the Bay of Bengal. Formed by a deltaic plain at the 
confluence of the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra (Jamuna), and 
Meghna Rivers and their tributaries, Bangladesh's  alluvial soil is 
highly fertile but vulnerable to flood and drought. Hills rise above the 
plain only in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far southeast and the 
Sylhet division in the northeast.

Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, Bangladesh has a subtropical 
monsoonal climate characterized by heavy seasonal rainfall, 
moderately warm temperatures, and high humidity. Natural calamities, 
such as floods, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, and tidal bores affect the 
country almost every year. Bangladesh also is affected by major 
cyclones on average 16 times a decade.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated agricultural country in the 
world. With a per capita GDP of $220, it is also one of the poorest. 
Bangladesh's 120 million people are concentrated in an area about the 
size of Wisconsin. Its population growth rate is estimated at about 2% 
annually; a conservative estimate projects a population of 136 million 
by the year 2000. At present, 45% of the population is under 15 years 
of age.

Urbanization is proceeding rapidly, and it is estimated that only 30% of 
the population entering the labor force in the future will be absorbed 
into agriculture, although many will likely find other kinds of work in 
rural areas. The areas around Dhaka and Comilla are the most densely 
settled. The Sundarbans, an area of coastal tropical jungle in the 
southwest, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the southeastern border 
with Burma and India are the least densely populated.

Moves Toward a Market Economy

Following the violent events of 1971 during the fight for independence, 
Bangladesh--with the help of large infusions of donor relief and 
development aid--slowly began to turn its attention to developing new 
industrial capacity and rehabilitating its economy. The statist economic 
model adopted by its early leadership, however--including the 
nationalization of much of the industrial sector--resulted in 
and economic stagnation.

Beginning in 1975, the government gradually gave greater scope to 
private sector participation in the economy, a pattern that has 
continued. Some state-owned enterprises have been privatized, but 
many, including major portions of the banking and jute sectors, remain 
under government control. Population growth, inefficiency in the 
public sector, and limited natural resources and capital have continued 
to restrict economic growth.

In the mid-1980s, there were encouraging, if halting, signs of progress. 
Economic policies aimed at encouraging private enterprise and 
investment, denationalizing public industries, reinstating budgetary 
discipline, and liberalizing the import regime were accelerated. In 
1985, the government also began an economic structural adjustment 
program with the International Monetary Fund.

Although the Khaleda Zia government (1991-96) initially took 
significant strides toward pro-market reform, preoccupation with its 
domestic political troubles helped stall progress on this critical front 
the last year of its tenure. Real GDP growth fell slightly in 1995 to 
4.4%, while inflation, which stood at 1.4% in 1994, rose to 5.2% in 
1995, fueled by mounting political instability, shortfalls in 
production, and rising food prices. The government of Prime Minister 
Sheikh Hasina, elected in June 1996, has indicated that it will continue 
along the path toward privatization and open-market reform.

Efforts to achieve Bangladesh's microeconomic goals have been 
problematic. The privatization of public sector industries has proceeded 
at a slow pace, due in part to worker unrest in affected industries. The 
government has also proven unable to resist demands for wage hikes in 
government-owned industries. Economic growth has been further 
slowed by an archaic banking system which has impeded access to 
capital--a serious problem in rural areas where many farmers have 
difficulty obtaining credit at reasonable rates.


Most Bangladeshis earn their living from agriculture. While rice and 
jute are the primary crops, wheat is assuming greater importance, and 
tea is grown in the northeast. Because of Bangladesh's fertile soil and 
normally ample water supply, rice can be grown and harvested three 
times a year in many areas.

Due to a number of factors, Bangladesh's labor-intensive agriculture 
has achieved steady increases in foodgrain production despite the often 
unfavorable weather conditions. These include better flood control and 
irrigation, a generally more efficient use of fertilizers, and the 
establishment of better distribution and rural credit networks. With 18 
million metric tons produced in 1993, rice is Bangladesh's principal 
crop. By comparison, wheat output in 1993 was 1.2 million metric 
tons. Population pressure continues to place a severe burden on 
productive capacity, creating a food deficit, especially of wheat. 
Foreign assistance and commercial imports fill the gap.

Underemployment remains a serious problem, and a growing concern 
for Bangladesh's agricultural sector will be its ability to absorb 
additional manpower. Finding alternative sources of employment is a 
daunting problem, particularly for the increasing numbers of landless 
peasants who already account for about half the rural labor force.

Industry and Investment

Industrial development has been a priority for successive Bangladesh 
governments. Although small, the industrial sector contributes 
significantly to export receipts, and provides employment and a market 
for cash crops. Jute products--mainly burlap sacking and carpet-
backing for export--and cotton textiles for domestic consumption 
remain important.

Production of ready-made garments for export to the U.S., Canadian, 
and European markets has grown rapidly and now dominates 
Bangladeshi exports. Bangladesh is the fifth-largest supplier of cotton 
apparel to the United States and has begun to diversify its garment 
exports away from the North American market to the West European 
market. On July 4, 1995, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers 
Export Association, International Labor Organization, and UNICEF 
signed a memorandum of understanding on the elimination of child 
labor in the garment sector. Implementation of this pioneering 
agreement began in the fall of 1995.

The labor-intensive process of shipbreaking for scrap has developed to 
the point where it now meets most of Bangladesh's domestic steel 
needs. Other industries include sugar, tea, leather goods, newsprint, 
pharmaceutical, and fertilizer production.

The Ershad government (1982-90) sought to increase industrial growth 
by removing barriers to private sector participation in economic 
development, providing incentives to domestic and foreign private 
investors, and denationalizing public sector industrial units and banks. 
Key to this change in policy was the denationalization of about half of 
the public sector's jute looms, one-third of its cotton textile looms, a 
number of other industrial units, and several banks. In addition, 
new private sector banks were established. The Khaleda Zia 
government continued down the path of reform, though progress on 
privatization of public sector enterprises has been very slow.

The Bangladesh Government continues to court foreign investment. In 
1989, it established a board of investment to simplify approval and 
start-up procedures for foreign investors; the same year it signed a 
bilateral investment treaty with the United States. Bangladesh also has 
established export processing zones in Chittagong and Dhaka and plans 
to create additional zones elsewhere in the country.


The president, while chief of state, holds a largely ceremonial post; 
real power is held by the prime minister, who is head of government. 
The president is elected by the legislature (parliament) every five 

The president's normally circumscribed powers are substantially 
expanded during the tenure of a caretaker government. (Under the 
Thirteenth Amendment, which the parliament passed in March 1996, a 
caretaker government assumes power temporarily to oversee general 
elections after dissolution of the parliament.)  In the caretaker 
government, the president has control over the Ministry of Defense, the 
authority to declare a state of emergency, and the power to dismiss the 
Chief Advisor and other members of the caretaker government. Once 
elections have been held and a new government and parliament are in 
place, the president's powers and position revert to their habitually 
ceremonial role.

The prime minister is appointed by the president; the prime minister 
must be a Member of Parliament (MP) who the president feels 
commands the confidence of the majority of other MPs. The cabinet is 
composed of ministers selected by the prime minister and appointed by 
the president. Ninety percent of the ministers must be MPs. The other 
10% may be non-MP experts or "technocrats" who are not otherwise 
disqualified from being elected MPs. According to the constitution, the 
president can dissolve parliament upon the written request of the prime 

The legislature is a unicameral, 330-seat body. Three hundred of its 
members are elected by universal suffrage every five years. The 
remaining 30 seats are reserved for women MPs elected by the 

Bangladesh's judiciary is a civil court system based on the British 
model; the highest court of appeal is the Appellate Court of the 
Supreme Court.

At the local government level, the country is divided into divisions, 
districts, subdistricts, unions, and villages. Local officials are 
elected at 
the union level. All larger administrative units are run by members of 
the civil service.


The Bangladesh army, navy, and air force are composed of regular 
military members. Many of the senior officers and non-commissioned 
officers served in the Pakistan military before the 1971 independence 
war. Senior officers include "repatriates" who were interned in Pakistan 
during the war and "freedom fighters" who fought against Pakistan.

The 100,000-member, six-division army is modeled and organized 
along British lines, similar to other armies on the Indian subcontinent. 
It is supported by artillery, armored, and combat units. In addition to 
traditional defense roles, the military has been called on to provide 
support to civil authorities for disaster relief and internal security. 
Bangladesh air force and navy, with about 7,000 personnel each, 
perform traditional military missions. A coast guard has been recently 
formed under the Home Ministry to assume some functions currently 
performed by the navy.

Recognition of economic and fiscal constraints has led to the 
establishment of several paramilitary and auxiliary forces, including 
the 40,000-member Bangladesh Rifles; the Ansars and Village Defense 
Parties Organization, which claims 64 members in every village in the 
country; and a 5,000-member specialized police unit known as the 
Armed Police. Bangladesh Rifles, under the authority of the Home 
Ministry, are commanded by army officers who are seconded to the 

In addition to in-country military training, some advanced and 
technical training is done abroad, including grant aid training in the 
United States. China, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe are major defense 
suppliers to Bangladesh. In 1995, the Bangladesh air force made its 
largest purchase from the U.S. to date--12 jet trainers. A 2,300-member 
Bangladesh army contingent served with coalition forces during the 
1991 Gulf War. In 1995, over 7,000 Bangladesh forces were serving 
abroad under the United Nations flag and under contractual 


The provisional government of the new nation of Bangladesh was 
formed in Dhaka with Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury as President and 
Sheikh Mujibir Rahman ("Mujib")--who was released from Pakistani 
prison in early 1972--as Prime Minister.

Sheikh Mujibir Rahman, 1972-75

Mujib came to office with immense personal popularity but had 
difficulty transforming this popular support into the political strength 
needed to function as head of government. The new constitution, which 
came into force in December 1972, created a strong executive prime 
minister, a largely ceremonial presidency, an independent judiciary, 
and a unicameral legislature on a modified Westminster model. The 
1972 constitution adopted as state policy the Awami League's (AL) 
four basic principles of nationalism, secularism, socialism, and 

The first parliamentary elections held under the 1972 constitution were 
in March 1973, with the Awami League winning a massive majority. 
No other political party in Bangladesh's early years was able to 
duplicate or challenge the League's broad-based appeal, membership, 
or organizational strength.

Relying heavily on experienced civil servants and members of the 
Awami League, the new Bangladesh Government focused on relief, 
rehabilitation, and reconstruction of the economy and society. 
Economic conditions remained precarious, however. In December 
1974, Mujib decided that continuing economic deterioration and 
mounting civil disorder required strong measures. After proclaiming a 
state of emergency, Mujib used his parliamentary majority to win a 
constitutional amendment limiting the powers of the legislative and 
judicial branches, establishing an executive presidency, and instituting 
a one-party system, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League 
(BAKSAL), which all members of parliament were obliged to join.

Despite some improvement in the economic situation during the first 
half of 1975, implementation of promised political reforms was slow, 
and criticism of government policies became increasingly centered on 
Mujib. In August 1975, Mujib and most of his family were assassinated 
by mid-level army officers. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, happened to 
be out of the country. A new government, headed by former Mujib 
associate Khandakar Moshtaque, was formed.

Ziaur Rahman, 1975-81

Successive military coups resulted in the emergence of Army Chief of 
Staff Gen. Ziaur Rahman ("Zia") as strongman. He pledged the army's 
support to the civilian government headed by President Chief Justice 
Sayem. Acting at Zia's behest, Sayem dissolved parliament, promising 
fresh elections in 1977, and instituted martial law.

Acting behind the scenes of the Martial Law Administration, (MLA), 
Zia sought to invigorate government policy and administration. While 
continuing the ban on political parties, he sought to revitalize the 
demoralized bureaucracy, to begin new economic development 
programs, and to emphasize family planning. In November 1976, Zia 
became Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and assumed the 
presidency upon Sayem's retirement five months later, promising 
national elections in 1978.

As President, Zia announced a 19-point program of economic reform 
and began dismantling the MLA. Keeping his promise to hold 
elections, Zia won a five-year term in June 1978 elections with 76% of 
the vote. In November 1978, his government removed the remaining 
restrictions on political party activities in time for parliamentary 
elections in February 1979. These elections, which were contested by 
more than 30 parties, marked the culmination of Zia's transformation of 
Bangladesh's government from the MLA to a democratically elected, 
constitutional one. The AL and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party 
(BNP), founded by Zia, emerged as the two major parties. The 
constitution was again amended to provide for an executive prime 
minister appointed by the president and responsible to a parliamentary 

In May 1981, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong by dissident elements 
of the military. The attempted coup never spread beyond that city, and 
the major conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. In 
accordance with the constitution, Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar 
was sworn in as acting president. He declared a new national 
emergency and called for election of a new president within six 
months--an election Sattar won as the BNP's candidate. President Sattar 
sought to follow the policies of his predecessor and retained 
the same cabinet, but the army stepped in once again.

Hussain Mohammed Ershad, 1982-90

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a 
bloodless coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad 
suspended the constitution and--citing pervasive corruption, ineffectual 
government, and economic mismanagement--declared martial law. The 
following year, Ershad assumed the presidency, retaining his positions 
as army chief and CMLA. During most of 1984, Ershad sought the 
opposition parties' participation in local elections under martial law. 
The opposition's refusal to participate, however, forced Ershad to 
abandon these plans.

Ershad sought public support for his regime in a national referendum 
on his leadership in March 1985. He won overwhelmingly, although 
turnout was small. Two months later, Ershad held elections for local 
council chairmen. Pro-government candidates won a majority of the 
posts, setting in motion the President's ambitious decentralization 

Political life was further liberalized in early 1986, and additional 
political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were 
restored. At the same time, the Jatiyo (People's) Party, designed as 
Ershad's political vehicle for the transition from martial law, was 

Despite a boycott by the BNP, led by President Zia's widow, Begum 
Khaleda Zia, parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 
1986. The Jatiyo Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats 
in the national assembly. The participation of the Awami League--led 
by the late Prime Minister Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed--
lent the elections some credibility, despite widespread charges of 
voting irregularities.

Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military 
service in preparation for the presidential elections scheduled for 
October. Protesting that martial law was still in effect, both the BNP 
and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily 
outdistanced the remaining candidates, taking 84% of the vote. 
Although Ershad's government claimed a turnout of more than 50%, 
opposition leaders and much of the foreign press estimated a far lower 
percentage and alleged voting irregularities.

Ershad, continued his stated commitment to lift martial law. In 
November 1986, his government mustered the necessary two-thirds 
majority in the national assembly to amend the constitution and 
confirm the previous actions of the martial law regime. The President 
then lifted martial law, and the opposition parties took their elected 
seats in the national assembly.

In July 1987, however, after the government hastily pushed through a 
controversial legislative bill to include military representation on 
administrative councils, the opposition walked out of parliament. 
Passage of the bill helped spark an opposition movement that quickly 
gathered momentum, uniting Bangladesh's opposition parties for the 
first time. The government began to arrest scores of opposition 
under the country's Special Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, 
opposition parties continued to organize protest marches and 
nationwide strikes. After declaring a state of emergency, Ershad 
dissolved parliament and scheduled fresh elections for March 1988.

All major opposition parties refused government overtures to 
participate in these polls, maintaining that the government was 
incapable of holding free and fair elections. Despite the opposition 
boycott, the government proceeded. The ruling Jatiyo Party won 251 of 
the 300 seats. The parliament, while still regarded by the opposition as 
an illegitimate body, held its sessions as scheduled and passed a large 
number of bills, including, in June 1988, a controversial constitutional 
amendment making Islam Bangladesh's state religion.

By 1989, the domestic political situation in the country seemed to have 
quieted. The local council elections were generally considered by 
international observers to have been less violent and more free and fair 
than previous elections. However, opposition to Ershad's rule began to 
regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent general 
strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general 
disintegration of law and order.

On December 6, 1990, Ershad offered his resignation. On February 27, 
1991, after two months of widespread civil unrest, an interim 
government oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's 
most free and fair elections to date.

Khaleda Zia, 1991-96

The center-right BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition 
government with the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-I-Islami, 
with Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, obtaining the post of Prime 

Only four parties had more than 10 members elected to the 1991 
parliament: The BNP, led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia; the 
AL, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed; the Jamaat-I-Islami (JI), led by 
Golam Azam; and the Jatiyo Party (JP), led by acting chairman 
Mizanur Rahman Choudhury while its founder, former President 
Ershad, served out a prison sentence on corruption charges.

The electorate approved still more changes to the constitution, formally 
re-creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power to 
the office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh's original 1972 
constitution. In October 1991, members of parliament elected a new 
head of state, President Abdur Rahman Biswas.

In March 1994, controversy over a parliamentary by-election, which 
the opposition claimed the government had rigged, led to an indefinite 
boycott of parliament by the entire opposition. The opposition also 
began a program of repeated general strikes to press its demand that 
Khaleda Zia's government resign and a caretaker government supervise 
a general election.

Efforts to mediate the dispute under the auspices of the Commonwealth 
Secretariat failed. After another attempt at a negotiated settlement 
failed narrowly in late December 1994, the opposition resigned en 
masse from parliament. The opposition then continued a campaign of 
marches, demonstrations, and strikes in an effort to force the 
government to resign. The opposition--including the Awami League's 
Sheikh Hasina Wajed--pledged to boycott national elections scheduled 
for February 15, 1996.

In February, Khaleda Zia was re-elected by a landslide in voting 
boycotted and denounced as unfair by the three main opposition 
parties. In March 1996, following escalating political turmoil, the 
sitting parliament enacted a constitutional amendment to allow a 
neutral caretaker government to assume power and conduct new 
parliamentary elections; Former Chief Justice Mohammed Habibur 
Rahman was named Chief Advisor (a position equivalent to Prime 
Minister) in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were 
held in June 1996 and were won by the Awami League; party leader 
Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister.

Principal Officials

President--Abdur Rahman Biswas (term ends October 1996)
Prime Minister--Sheikh Hasina
Foreign Minister--Abdus Samad Azad
Ambassador to the U.S.--Humayun Kabir
Ambassador to the UN--Reaz Rahman

Bangladesh's embassy in the United States is at 2201 Wisconsin 
Avenue, NW, Washington, DC  20007; tel: 202-342-8372; fax: 202-

A consulate general is at the Bangladesh mission to the United Nations, 
821 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017. The telephone number for the 
UN mission is 212-867-3434, fax 212-972-4038. The telephone 
number for the consulate general in New York is 212-599-6767, fax 


Bangladesh pursues a moderate foreign policy that places heavy 
reliance on multinational diplomacy, especially at the United Nations.

Participation in Multilateral Organizations

Bangladesh was admitted to the United Nations in 1974 and was 
elected to a Security Council term in 1978. Then-Foreign Minister 
Choudhury served as president of the 41st UN General Assembly in 
1986. The government has participated in numerous international 
conferences, especially those dealing with population, food, 
development, and women's issues. In 1982-83, Bangladesh played a 
constructive role as Chairman of the "Group of 77," an informal 
association encompassing most of the world's developing nations. In 
1983, Bangla-desh hosted the foreign ministers meeting of the 
Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It has taken a leading 
role in the "Group of 48" developing countries.

Since 1975, Bangladesh has sought close relations with other Islamic 
states and a prominent role among moderate members of the OIC. The 
government also pursued the expansion of cooperation among the 
nations of South Asia, bringing the process--an initiative of former 
President Ziaur Rahman--through its earliest, most tentative stages to 
the formal inauguration of the South Asia Association for Regional 
Cooperation (SAARC) at a summit gathering of South Asian leaders in 
Dhaka in December 1985. Bangladesh has served in the chairmanship 
of SAARC and has participated in a wide range of ongoing SAARC 
regional activities.

In recent years, Bangladesh has played a significant role in 
international peacekeeping activities. Several thousand Bangladeshi 
military personnel are deployed overseas on peacekeeping operations. 
Under UN auspices, Bangladeshi troops have served or are serving in 
Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Haiti. 
Bangladesh responded quickly to President Clinton's 1994 request for 
troops and police for the multinational force for Haiti and provided the 
largest non-U.S. contingent.

Bilateral Relations with Other Nations

Bangladesh is bordered on the west, north, and east by a 2,400-
kilometer land frontier with India and on the southeast by a land and 
water frontier (193 kilometers long) with Burma.

India. India is Bangladesh's most important neighbor. Geographic, 
cultural, historic, and commercial ties are strong, and both countries 
recognize the importance of good relations. During and immediately 
after Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, 
India assisted refugees from East Pakistan, intervened militarily to 
bring about the independence of Bangladesh, and furnished relief and 
reconstruction aid.

Indo-Bangladesh relations have not been without strains. Flooding in 
Bangladesh, a phenomenon which is believed by many Bangladeshis to 
originate largely in India, has aggravated bilateral tensions. Other 
standing contentious issues include the equitable division of dry-season 
water, on which both countries' economies depend. An earlier bilateral 
water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River lapsed in 1988, and 
efforts are being undertaken to rework the agreement. Both nations 
have, however, begun to cooperate on the issue of flood warning and 
preparedness. Discussions on the return to Bangladesh of tribal 
refugees--who fled into India beginning in 1986 to escape violence 
caused by an insurgency in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill 
Tracts--continue as well, and some refugees have returned to 

Pakistan. Bangladesh enjoys warm relations with Pakistan, despite the 
strained early days of their relationship. Landmarks in their 
reconciliation are:

--  An August 1973 agreement between Bangladesh and Pakistan on 
the repatriation of numerous individuals, including 90,000 Pakistani 
prisoners of war stranded in Bangladesh as a result of the 1971 
--  A February 1974 accord by Bangladesh and Pakistan on mutual 
recognition, followed more than two years later by establishment of 
formal diplomatic relations;
--  The organization by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees 
(UNHCR) of an airlift that moved almost 250,000 Bengalis from 
Pakistan to Bangladesh and non-Bengalis from Bangladesh to Pakistan; 
--  Exchanges of high-level visits, including a visit by Prime Minister 
Benazir Bhutto to Bangladesh in 1989 and visits by Prime Minister Zia 
to Pakistan in 1992 and in 1995.

Still to be resolved are the division of assets from the pre-1971 period 
and the status of more than 250,000 non-Bengali Muslims (known as 
"Biharis") remaining in Bangladesh but seeking resettlement in 

Burma. Bilateral ties with Burma are good, despite occasional border 
strains and an influx of more than 270,000 Muslim refugees (known as 
"Rohingya") from predominantly Buddhist Burma. As a result of 
bilateral discussions and with the cooperation and assistance of the 
UNHCR, most of the Rohingya refugees have now returned to Burma. 
As of mid-1995, about 50,000 refugees remained in camps in southern 

Former Soviet Union. The former Soviet Union supported India's 
actions during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and was among the first to 
recognize Bangladesh. The U.S.S.R. initially contributed considerable 
relief and rehabilitation aid to the new nation. After Sheikh Mujib was 
assassinated in 1975 and replaced by military regimes, however, 
Soviet-Bangladesh relations cooled.

In 1989, the U.S.S.R. ranked 14th among aid donors to Bangladesh. 
The Soviets focused on the development of electrical power, natural 
gas, and oil and maintained active cultural relations with Bangladesh. 
They financed a showcase project, the Ghorasal thermal power station-
-the largest in Bangladesh. Bangladesh began to open diplomatic 
relations with the newly independent Central Asian states in 1992.

China. China traditionally has been more important to Bangladesh than 
the former U.S.S.R., even though China supported Pakistan in 1971. 
As Bangladesh's relations with the Soviet Union and India cooled in 
the mid-1970s and as Bangladesh and Pakistan became reconciled, 
China's relations with Bangladesh grew warmer. An exchange of 
diplomatic missions in February 1976 followed an accord on 
recognition in late 1975.

Since that time, relations have grown stronger, centering on trade, 
cultural activities, military and civilian aid, and exchanges of high-
level visits, beginning in January 1977 with President Zia's trip to 
Beijing. The largest and most visible symbol of bilateral amity is the 
Bangladesh-China "Friendship Bridge" completed in 1989 near Dhaka.

Other Countries. Bangladesh maintains friendly relations with Bhutan, 
Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and strongly opposed the Soviet 
invasion of Afghanistan.


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program 
provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel 
Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that 
Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information 
Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration 
practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of 
crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the 
posts in the subject country. They can be obtained by telephone at 
(202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the Consular 
Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a modem 
with standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications on 
obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available from 
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 
Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800. 

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may 
be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers 
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization 
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking 
water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health 
Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-
95-8280, price $14.00) is available from the U.S. Government Printing 
Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800. 

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and 
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to 
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's 
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal 
Government Officials" listing in this publication). 

Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to 
at the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in 
this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of 
an emergency.

Further Electronic Information:

Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the 
CABB provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and 
helpful information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of 
charge to anyone with a personal computer, modem, 
telecommunications software, and a telephone line.

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the 
Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. 
foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes 
Background Notes; Dispatch, the official weekly magazine of U.S. 
foreign policy; daily press briefings; directories of key officers of 
foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at 
http://www.state.gov; this site has a link to the DOSFAN Gopher 
Research Collection, which also is accessible at 

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly 
basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on 
the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an 
array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. 
Priced at $80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs 
(MSDOS and Macintosh compatible) and are available from the 
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. 
Box 37194, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 
or fax (202) 512-2250.

Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy 
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S. 
Government Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387. 
For general BBS information, call (202) 512-1530.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department 
of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related 
information, including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on 
the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB 
Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.

Additional Resources

Available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government 
Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402:

Department of the Army. Bangladesh: A Country Study. 1989.
U.S. Department of Commerce. Overseas Business Reports and 
Foreign Economic Trends.

The following titles are provided as a general indication of the 
published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse 
unofficial publications.

Ahmad, Nafis. A New Economic Geography of Bangladesh. New 
Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1976.
Baxter, Craig. Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting. Boulder: 
Westview Press, 1984.
Blanchet, Therese. Women, Pollution, and Marginality: Meaning and 
Rituals of Birth in Rural Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press, 1984.
Faaland, Just. Aid and Influence: The Case of Bangladesh. New York: 
St. Martin's Press, 1981.
Franda, Marcus. Bangladesh: The First Decade. Hanover: Universities 
Field Service International, 1982.
Novak, James J. Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water. Bloomington: 
Indiana University Press, 1993.
O'Donnell, Charles. Bangladesh: Biography of a Muslim Nation. 
Boulder: Westview Press, 1984.
Sobhan, Rehman. From Aid Dependence to Self Reliance. Dhaka: 
Mohiuddin Ahmed, The University Press Limited, 1990.
Webbergren, Boyd and Charles Antholt. Agricultural Development in 
Bangladesh: Prospects for the Future. Boulder: Westview Press, 1984.
Ziring, Lawrence. Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad. Dhaka: 
University Press Ltd., 1992.
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