In the short but bloody decade of Bangladesh's existence, Army officers have tried 19 times to seize control of this pitifully poor country. Three of Bangladesh's six presidents have died from bullets fired by military assassins.

As a result of the latest coup attempt, which took the life of the extremely popular President Ziaur Rahman, a former general who was trying to lead the country back to civilian rule and to economic viability, 12 Army officers have been sentenced by a military tribunal to death by hanging.

Since Zia's assassination just three months ago, the civil government has retained control of Bangladesh, much to the surprise of many Bangladeshis and diplomats here who had predicted that the country would fall into a chaotic situation that would allow the military to take over.

It is still unclear to many observers whether the military will allow the civilian government to continue if it becomes unruly, as Bangladesh politics often does, although the Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad insisted in an interview here that his aim is to support the constitutionally formed civil authority.

The appointed vice president, ailing Abdus Sattar, 75, took over the government and Zia's Bangladesh National Party immediately after the election and has run things ever since.

He has scheduled elections, put off once and expected to be postponed again until November on the demand of opposition parties, and has vowed to run for president to follow Zia's development agenda.

Sattar, a widely respected retired judge, is expected to win the election.

Zia's assassination has created doubt, however, as to whether this country will be able to continue what is generally considered its remarkable progress from being known as the world's basket case toward coming close to limited economic viability.

Furthermore, questions are being raised whether the military will end its feuding and allow civilian rule to take hold--something it has been unable to do until now.

"I have the personal faith and belief that it is not our job to administer the country. We will give full support to the government . . . and come out for the elected authority," said Ershad, dressed in civilian clothes, over tea in the chief of staff's heavily guarded house in the military compound here.

But Army officers have run this nation for a longer period of time than civilians during the 10 years since its independence.

Moreover, most of the disruption in Bangladesh has been the result of a feud between two groups of military men--the so-called freedom fighters who were in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, during the 1971 civil war and thus were able to fight Pakistan in the independence struggle, and the repatriates, who were stranded in West Pakistan and unable to join the battle.

The freedom fighters, many of whom deserted from the Pakistani Army and police, felt they deserved a special place for their struggle in the creation of the new nation.

But men such as Ershad, who was in command of a Pakistani Army unit in Karachi, believed they too were part of the new nation. He said he "wanted with heart and soul" to join the freedom struggle in 1971 but was unable to escape from a hostile West Pakistan and travel 1,500 miles to Dacca.

Zia, the assassinated president, was a renowned freedom fighter, the officer who first announced to the world the formation of Bangladesh from a captured radio station in Chittagong--the same city in eastern Bangladesh where he was slain.

But, according to diplomats, Army officers and a wide range of Bangladeshis interviewed here, he refused to believe that the freedom fighters deserved any special role in the Bangladesh Army over the repatriated soldiers, many of whom he considered better trained and less politically motivated.

As a result, most of the higher ranking freedom fighters were purged under Zia from the military hierarchy.

Zia's assassination, according to an unusually detailed and forthright white paper being put out in sections by the Bangladesh government, was part of that battle within the military for control of the country.

"Zia tried to bring them together. That is why he was killed," said Ershad.

The coup attempt was organized by a former friend of Zia's, fellow freedom fighter Maj. Gen. Mohammas Abdul Manzoor, the commanding general of the Chittagong district who resented his transfer to what the white paper called "a coveted appointment" as commandant of the Defense Services Command and Staff College.

Manzoor was described as "a man with ambition" who had gathered a large number of freedom fighters under his command and exhorted them with a series of speeches to mutiny against the Zia government.

But his transfer was described as being considered "the last blow to freedom fighters' interests" because it took one of their band away from the actual command of troops, the white paper said.

Zia was killed as he rushed from his second-story bedroom after he heard the shooting, presumably to lead the counterattack as he had during some of the previous 20 other attempts on his life.

But this time he was too late. Because a turncoat on his staff, Lt. Col. Mahfuzur Rahman, had joined the rebels and weakened the police guard, the 16 junior officers who attacked the Chittagong house at 3:30 a.m. May 30 in a heavy rainfall were already rushing up the stairs to his bedroom.

They started firing as soon as he opened the door.

"He fell down to the floor near the stairs with his chest littered with the bursts of submachine guns fired from point blank range," the white paper said.

There are many here who believe Zia would have survived had he not tried to go after his attackers but rather had been prudent and remained in his room.

The mutiny was short lived. It gathered no support from the rank and file in the Army, either in Chittagong or in other posts around the country. Manzoor, the leader, was shot under mysterious circumstances after being captured by the Army.

In all, 31 officers were accused of taking part in the mutiny. Despite cries for open, civil trials of the accused, the Army insisted on taking custody and holding secret court-martials whose results have not yet been made public.

According to Ershad, 19 officers were convicted, 12 of them sentenced to be hanged. The sentences have been protested by political parties, Amnesty International and families of the accused, who said they should have had open civil trials with full legal representation. The Dacca high court ordered a stay of the execution until it decides whether it has jurisdiction in the cases.

That in itself illustrates where power lies in Bangladesh.

Even the courts are unsure whether they can move in when the military decides to take over, as they did in the assassination of president Zia.

Although it was done by Army officers in what has been officially described as a mutiny, the offense took place in a government-owned guesthouse and, according to the white paper, civil authorities not the military had the responsibility of guarding the president there.