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Bangladesh Independence

March 25, 2011

Forty years ago, citizens of eastern Pakistan declared their independence from Islamabad in the west. Their plight to create the state of Bangladesh cost as many as three million lives and left lingering scars.

People holding candles in the dark
Bangladeshis marking forty of independenceImage: AP

The „Liberation War Museum“ in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka is dedicated to remembering the events which led to the bloody birth of a new nation. One room is given over entirely to the historic night of March 25, 1971, which was the starting moment of almost three months of violent conflict between what was then East and West Pakistan.

One of the museum's founders, Mofidul Hoque, recalls how the Pakistan army emerged and began a campaign of "indiscriminate killing".

Pictures and leaflets on a wall at the Liberation War Museum
Inside the Liberation War MuseumImage: Gerhard Klas

"They attacked university dormitories, especially those of Hindu students, and they also attacked the houses of the professors, because one of the briefings was that these teachers were the root of the evil because they taught students the wrong kind of philosophy and outlook," Hoque told Deutsche Welle.

The conflict had been brewing for a long time. Pakistan consisted of an Eastern and a Western sector, divided by Indian territory, and although the population of both sectors were Muslims, the Bengalis in the East felt politically excluded and economically exploited by their dominant counterparts to the west. Hence the call for independence.

The trappings of war

But West Pakistan was not willing to relinquish control without a fight and moved quickly to try and crush the independence movement - with devastating consequences for the 75 million strong population.

"Almost every family suffered," Hoque explained. "As the army moved into the villages, they burned, they killed, they raped, so people had to go away to a safer place."

Richard Nixon in front of a wall. Wearing a hat and a smile
Richard Nixon failed to respond to a plea for the US to interveneImage: AP

Although foreign journalists were flown out of Dhaka on March 26, many diplomats stayed on. Among them was the US American consul Archer Blood, who along with other US citizens sent a telegram about the atrocities to the US foreign secretary.

What became known as the “Blood telegram” tried to alert President Richard Nixon's administration to the US government's failure to denounce atrocities and the suppression of democracy:

"Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy,(...) But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state."

In denial

Far from adhering to Consul Archer Blood's warnings, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – who later went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - recalled him.

Chief of Pakistan Army, General Yahya Khan
Chief of Pakistan Army, General Yahya KhanImage: AP

At that time, Islamabad was a key American ally, and as such the US government stood firmly behind Pakistan's military dictator Yahya Khan who denied all reports about the bloodshed.

“Nothing but exaggerated lies," Khan said at the time, adding that the army had merely tried to save 70 million people of East Pakistan from their own armed rebels. "So what do you people talk about, army genocide and army oppression?"

The fighting continued into December 1971, when the Indian army moved in to back East Pakistan. After less than two week of India's support, independence was secured and the state of Bangladesh was born.

Starting over, and over

But the country's troubled beginnings continued. In 1975, inaugural President, Sheik Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, and his successor died the same way. Thereafter, the country was rocked by repeated military coups, and successive autocratic regimes tried to talk down the number of victims claimed by the war of liberation.

Bangladesh's first President Sheik Mujibur Rahman
The first president of Bangladesh, Sheik Mujibur RahmanImage: AP

In 2008 Bangladesh established a democratically elected government under Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajid – the daughter of Bangladesh's first President. In March 2010 the new government launched a war crimes tribunal to look into the events of 1971.

Mofidul Hoque says the trial will be largely symbolic, but that still, the whole country should take an interest in it because the tribunal could establish justice and truth. "We feel very strongly that this is an unresolved issue," he says.

He also thinks that Germany could work as an example for his country: "In Germany, there are still today cases in which Nazis are prosecuted. So for us it is very interesting how the German people address this issue, how they involve younger generations in this whole process of remembering, and what they have learned from this process that enabled them to move forward."

Reporter: Gerhard Klas/tkw
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg