Over the last four decades, American journalist Lawrence Lifschultz, who reported on the military coup d’etat that killed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and much of his family, has written a series of investigative stories that have provided new insight and understanding into the tragic events of August 15, 1975 and their aftermath. The former South Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and writer for The Guardian once again opens a door to an unknown chapter of the 1975 coup d’etat
August 15, 1975
Anniversary dates both joyful and tragic remind us of events and people we once knew.
Each year when a particular date approaches, we recall what happened on that day. Sometimes we do not dwell on the past. We remember briefly and then our thoughts move on.
There are other times when we pause. We may stop to consider past events. We take stock and assess.
The work of a writer is like that. To think about what happened long ago and reconsider. If possible to bring new facts to light.
August 15 is one of those dates in my life.
Once before I noted that August 15 illustrates the dictum of William Faulkner that the past is never dead, it is not even past.
Some years I just pause. Remember. And, then go on with other tasks and obligations while certain memories linger.
However, this year I decided to stop and open a new chapter of an old story which has importance not only for Bengalis but also for Americans like myself.
Murders took place in Dhaka on August 15, 1975.
There was a sequence of events that led up to those murders. Were only Bangladeshis involved? Or, were certain actors encouraged, even enabled?
In Bangladesh and in the United States there are people who oppose murder as a tool of international politics and believe that those who commit a crime like murder should be held to account.
Today we remember the violence of August 15, 1975. However, even after all these years there are still gaps in our understanding of the role of certain individuals in the planning and execution of the killing that took place on August 15 in Dhaka and on November 3 at the Dhaka Central Jail.
We know a good deal. Yet, new information is now in our possession. Perhaps, it will provide additional insight and broaden our understanding of the past.
A Dhaka meeting precedes the coup d’etat
Some time ago on a brief trip to Dhaka I decided to call a man who I had been thinking about for more than thirty years. As luck would have it we were both still alive.
The last time I saw this individual -- more than three decades previously -- he sat down beside me and quietly told me there was something important he needed to tell me. Although at that point he had only said one sentence, he was very serious.
We knew each other. Not well. However, I knew about an act of great courage on his part. I respected him for the risk he had taken to save another man’s life.
I was at his home that evening in Dhaka. He is a businessman. He had invited me to a gathering. It was very crowded and thus impossible to have a private conversation. He suggested that I should return the next evening. I told him I would show up at the agreed time the following day.
However, the next day I was placed under arrest and I was unable to keep the appointment. I was present in Dhaka to report on Colonel Abu Taher’s secret trial at Dhaka Central Jail. One could hardly call it a trial. It was a mechanism by which General Zia had decided to execute his old friend, Abu Taher, who had once saved Zia’s life.
I was filing reports for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Guardian, and the BBC. In Dhaka and throughout Bangladesh there was a total press blackout on Taher’s trial. The first news of the trial had come through on the BBC’s Bengali language service based on my reporting.
I had found a way to get my reports to the Reuters office in Bangkok which forwarded them on to my respective editors in Hong Kong and London. All transmissions of my stories from the Dhaka telex office had been blocked for over a week. I was detained for three days and then deported to Bangkok. Censorship was now complete, domestically and internationally.
I never made it to my appointment to hear what this gentleman had wanted to tell me. More than thirty years later, I was briefly visiting Dhaka and I decided to call this person and apologize for missing our meeting. It seemed the least I could do.
Yet, I was also very interested in finding what he had wanted to tell me all those years ago. I reached him at his office and he insisted I come over immediately.
When I arrived, he greeted me warmly. He reprimanded me for not showing up that evening in July 1976. He asked: “Did you have to get yourself arrested on that particular night? I was waiting for you.”
Ultimately, he forgave me for missing the meeting. Tea was served. He arranged for someone he trusted to join us. I asked him if he remembered having said to me that he had something important to tell me. “I remember as if it were yesterday,” he said. He then became quite serious.
In the next hour he told an important story. Over the next several days we would go over the details several times while having dinner or lunch at his residence. His wife was a witness. She confirmed her husband’s account while adding specific additional details that she recalled. This is what he had to tell me.
The time when these events took place happened in the weeks immediately preceding the August 15 coup when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family were murdered.
This gentleman had many friends among the diplomatic community in Dhaka. These friendships and relationships were in the nature of the businesses he owned and ran. He told me he had a friend at the American Embassy, a political officer, named Philip Cherry.
He described the American as a personable and charming individual who seemed to have a great love for Bangladesh. Sometimes they went for drives together to visit factories that this individual owned. He remembers Phil Cherry saying how Bangladesh was such a beautiful country.
Towards the end of July or early August in 1975, Philip Cherry called this gentleman and asked him if the businessman could organize a dinner at his home. The businessman said he would be glad to do so. Did Philip Cherry want some particular guests to be invited?
Cherry confirmed to the prospective host that he only wanted one guest to be invited. Naturally, the guest would also bring his wife. That guest was General Ziaur Rahman. The host knew Zia and he said he would be glad to arrange the dinner. Cherry suggested specific dates.
The dinner was arranged. General Zia arrived with his wife Khaleda. Phil Cherry arrived with his wife. The only other participants in the dinner were the host and his wife. The host says the dinner took place a week before the coup. His wife thinks it was probably more like ten days. It became clear as soon as both men arrived that they had things to talk about on their own.
General Zia and Philip Cherry went into the garden and spent nearly an hour talking with each other before dinner was served. Zia and Cherry seemed to know each other. After dinner they again went into the garden to continue their discussion. All seemed innocent enough at the time. However, after the coup, as one family member put it, the host and his family felt they had been “used.”
The day after the coup the host was so upset that he drove to Philip Cherry’s house in Gulshan and a dramatic scene ensued. The host was angry and in tears. He kept demanding how this could have happened. He described Mujib’s wife as being “like his own mother.” They killed her. Why? The host was furious and heart-broken that the entire family that were in Dhaka had been murdered. He kept repeating: “How could this have happened?”
Cherry’s wife tried to calm him down and served him tea. Cherry said to him: “I know you were very close to the family.” After expressing his grief and his anger the businessman got into his car and left.
He never saw Cherry again after that day. The family are politically sophisticated. They understand that the dinner they hosted and the Zia-Cherry meeting was not for social purposes. They clearly understand what Zia’s role was in the coup in keeping the army from turning on Major Farooq and Major Rashid as they undertook targeted murders in the pre-dawn hours of August 15.
Like many people they understood that Zia had played a critical role in the coup. Had General Zia opposed the coup d’etat it could never have happened. The evidence increasingly points to the fact that Zia was one of the principal architects of the coup and played a much more significant role than Khondaker Mustaque Ahmed.
One evening on a subsequent visit to Dhaka when I went over the Cherry-Zia meeting that took place at their house, I asked my businessman acquaintance if he knew that Philip Cherry was the CIA station chief in Dhaka at the time of the meeting with General Zia. He looked stunned, saying he thought Cherry was just a political officer at the US embassy.
That Cherry was indeed the CIA station chief is beyond question. As I revealed in an earlier article I wrote on the August 15 killings, my knowledge of this piece of information comes directly from an unimpeachable source: the US ambassador to Bangladesh at the time, Davis Eugene Boster.
On whose authority?
What we now understand is that approximately a week before the coup d’etat which killed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a meeting took place between the deputy chief of army staff of the Bangladesh army and the American CIA station chief.
This is a fact of utmost significance. It has particular meaning in that the US ambassador to Bangladesh, Davis Eugene Boster, had six months earlier issued precise instructions to all US embassy personnel to break off any contact with any official or person engaged in an attempt to overthrow the Mujib government.
A series of meetings took place between November 1974 and January 1975 between officials at the US embassy in Dhaka and individuals hoping to secure American backing. We will be examining these contacts in greater detail in a future article.
A week or ten days before the coup, Philip Cherry and General Ziaur Rahman were meeting in a private residence in Dhaka. Cherry could not have held this meeting or continued contacts with actors planning to stage a coup unless he had authorization. Since he had instructions from Ambassador Boster not to engage in any such contacts, the orders must have come from elsewhere. The CIA station chief would have been operating theoretically on orders from Washington or Langley.
The British writer Christopher Hitchens devoted a chapter to Bangladesh in his book entitled The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was Hitchens’ view that in August 1975 after Nixon’s demise there was only one “center” of power capable of providing authorization to support and encourage a coup d’etat in Dhaka to bring down Mujib. As Hitchens has written in his chapter on Bangladesh:
“Ambassador Boster became convinced that his CIA station was operating a back channel without his knowledge. Such an operation would have been meaningless, and pointlessly risky, if it did not extend homeward to Washington where, as is now notorious the threads of the Forty Committee and the National Security Council, were very closely held in one fist.” (The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens. London: Verso, 2001, p 52.)
The “fist” that held the threads, in Hitchens view, belonged to Henry Kissinger.
The import of the meeting that took place between Philip Cherry and General Ziaur Rahman raises a significant issue of who was instructing Cherry in the American government. Were his actions authorized by the Forty Committee or was Cherry receiving instructions directly from Henry Kissinger’s team at the State Department. These are issues that will be explored in a forthcoming article.
Lawrence Lifschultz was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastrern Economic Review. He has also written for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation (New York), Economic & Political Weekly (Mumbai) and the BBC, in addition to numerous other publications. He is the author/editor of Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History & the Smithsonian Controversy, Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan Wars (with Rabia Ali) and Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution. He can be reached at: [email protected]