Beijing became busy on Nepal soon after the UCPN (Maoist) emerged successful from the elections of April 2008. Whereas some other embassies may have believed that the Maoists were a force for societal transformation, the Chinese newborn tilt toward the party had little to do with social justice ideals. Simply put, Beijing hoped that the Maoists’ aggressive politics and ability to swing elections would lead to a forced stability in Nepal. If West Bengal could be ruled for 30 years by the CPM, if the Panchayat autocracy could maintain authoritarian calm in Nepal for three decades, why not back a party that, in addition, wore its anti-Indian ultra-nationalism like a badge?
The first hint of activist diplomacy came in late 2008 when two ministers of the Maoist-led government – Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Ram Bahadur Thapa – and senior Maoist leaders Netra Bikram Chand and Jayapuri Gharti made a secret visit to Tibet. Then came the phone-tap episode in September 2010, where Mahara was caught negotiating with a Mandarin-accented voice for Rs 50o million (US$7 million) to purchase prime ministership for Chairman Dahal. When it proved impossible for the latter to get elected, Beijing lobbied for a Left-Maoist alliance as against a Left-Democratic cohabitation, and was partially responsible for the birth of the Jhala Nath Khanal government.
These days, the protocol division of the Foreign Ministry is kept busy with revolving door Chinese delegations even as successive Home Ministry teams leave for tours of China. When the Chinese PLA chief Chen Bingde arrived in Kathmandu in March 2011, he distributed advice as if he were a political leader. Zhou Yongkang, the powerful member of the Politburo Standing Committee of China, with responsibilities equivalent to Home Minister, arrives mid-August at a time when Nepal will be in political turmoil due to the Constituent Assembly deadline.
The new Chinese Ambassador, Yang Houlan, hit the ground running with his arrival in June, visiting Lumbini, Bhairawa and Pokhara and promising all kinds of largesse from the Beijing honey-pot, not hesitating to expound on geopolitical affairs. The newly arrived plenipotentiary is even said to have advised Nepali leaders to try out the presidential-prime ministerial ‘French model’ in the new constitution. Unlike his predecessor, Ambassador Yang is apparently pushing the plans of a shadowy investors outfit based in Beijing, which promises to raise billions of dollars for developing the nativity region of Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gautam.
SHOCK & AWE
When Chairman Dahal made his lightening trips to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok in October 2010 and May 2011, summoned by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and Exchange Foundation (APECEF), speculation was rife that he was at meetings with Indian or Chinese diplomatic interlocutors and intelligence operatives. It suited the chairman not to let on what the APECEF was up to – seemingly a strategically designed plan to catapult him into an unassailable political position in Nepal as the conduit for mega-dollars, even as the investors of APECEF moved into the virgin lands of Lumbini under cover of a United Nations agency, with blessings of the Beijing government.
On July 18, the Xinhua news agency reported the signing in Beijing of a memorandum between the United Nations Industrial Development Office (UNIDO)’s ‘China investment and technology promotion office’ and the APECEF on raising investment of US$3 billion and more to develop Lumbini as a ‘special development zone’. Chairman Dahal has maintained his silence even as Chinese language websites inform us that former crown prince Paras is also co-chairman.
For now, it is enough to ask questions: Why is the industrial development arm of the UN involved rather than UNESCO, the designated agency to oversee Lumbini as a World Heritage Site? Why are all the relevant ministries of the Government of Nepal as well as the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) clueless about the memorandum? Is there a whiff of extra-territoriality when two alien entities sign a document in Beijing without official Nepali participation? All in all, why was the project so secretive, not consulting the key stakeholders in Kathmandu and Kapilvastu?
How deeply are the Chinese Government and the Communist Party of China involved with the APECEF proposal, or is this a renegade operation? The project document lists an entity of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce as the ‘government co-ordinating agency’. With Lumbini’s heritage sites less than 4 km from the Indian border at its closest, does the project hold out the danger of raising a reaction from India and triggering geopolitical competition that would harm Nepali interests? Is all the secretiveness precisely to take advantage of a transitional moment in Nepal when all political structures are in disarray, for the sake of a commercial killing and geopolitical encroachment?
None of these questions may be warranted, but for that the Nepali public needs clarifications from Chairman Dahal, the Chinese Government, the Government of Nepal and the LDT. The UNIDO Headquarters in Vienna and the UN Secretariat in New York may also educate us.
THE BUDDHISTIC URGE
After decades of promoting atheism, the Chinese authorities have decided to proactively develop Buddhism as the religion which will respond to the spiritual aspirations of the mainland’s expanding middle class. Marxism does not provide, for those who seek, answers for the afterlife, and so Buddhist sites in the mainland have been developed as centers of high-volume tourism and pilgrimage. This escalating interest of the Chinese population in Buddhism is welcome for what it can also do for Nepal’s economy. Beyond that, this peaceable faith can perhaps serve to soften the edges of the Chinese communist state as it rises to its station as global power.
While Beijing’s interest in Lumbini is welcome, what is disconcerting is APECEF’s heavy-handed carpetbagger methodology, which is obviously meant to shock and awe the Nepali public before a penny has been raised. Fortunately for us, there is the Lumbini Master Plan, developed by the great Japanese planner Kenzo Tange in 1978 at the behest of U-Thant, the first Asian Secretary-General of the UN. The Master Plan sets out the strategy to maintain the spiritual worth of the Sakyamuni’s birthplace while developing the larger region for pilgrimage and tourism. The implementation of Tange’s plan has been slow, but the LDT deserves credit for having maintained the vision despite numerous weaknesses and vicissitudes.
The Sakyamuni, a historical personage rather than a figure of myth, surely wanted Lumbini to serve as a spiritual centre to guide the world’s seekers. Would he have approved the conversion of the place into a commercial Disneyland? One often hears complaints that Lumbini is ‘so under-developed’, and comparisons are made to Mecca, the Vatican and Bethlehem, but that is perhaps the very point – Lumbini is a ‘minimalist’ response to the Sakyamuni’s suggestion to look inward in the search for external peace. The income for Nepal should come from visitors who arrive to partake of the very spiritualism that Kenzo Tange sought to preserve.
There is an earlier proposal from Chinese investors before the Nepal Government, which would have put up ‘the world’s tallest Buddha’ in Lumbini. Malaysian investors have been eyeing the development of the nearby Bhairahawa airport as a transportation hub. There are plans to build a trans-border ‘Buddhist circuit’ including sites in India such as Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar, and Nepal has a circuit of its own encompassing Kapilvastu, Rupandehi and Nawalparasi districts, linked to the lives of the historical Buddhas, including Krakuchanda and Kanakmuni.
There will clearly be no dearth of promoters, investors and sites as Nepal comes out of its extended political transition. What we need is transparency and clean motives. It is the responsibility of Kathmandu’s political front rank – none of whose members at present, incidentally, are of the Buddhist faith – to save Lumbini from geopolitical, sectarian and economic competition. The place’s sanctity must be preserved for the sake of the hundreds of millions of Buddhist adherents, in all parts of Asia and in the West. The sensitivities of the various streams and sects must be safeguarded as we seek to develop Lumbini.
U-THANT & BAN KI-MOON
The APECEF is coming on strong at a time when there is a proposal in New York from the Government of Nepal to revive the United Nations Committee for the Development of Lumbini. With the official membership of all Buddhistic countries, this is a unique committee under the UN Secretariat’s umbrella, and it is vital to reactivate it in order to save the inviolability of Lumbini and ensure its development under the Lumbini Master Plan.
Ban Ki-Moon, as the second Secretary-General from Asia after U-Thant, is enthusiastic about Lumbini’s development, and UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova is ready to take stewardship. From Nepal, we need a commitment to depoliticize and professionalize the LDT, perhaps having it chaired by the head-of-government. Secretary-General Ban, who has just been re-elected to a second term, was supposed to visit Lumbini in early 2012, but the confusing signals relating to the APECEF may have jeopardized that mission. Word of the APECEF caper seems to have reached New York, enough for the Secretary-General to send an emissary to Kathmandu two weeks ago, asking Prime Minister Khanal to halt all developmental activity in Lumbini for a year. As for Nepal, one cannot be rejectionist when investors come with great promises, but we do need to be in a position to evaluate. As things stand, we do not even know which province of the federal Nepal the Lumbini region would fall under, as the new constitution hangs on fire.
The APECEF could be part of a calibrated game-plan that is economic, political and geopolitical. Or it could be nothing of the sort, we have no clue amidst the murk and mystery. All well-wishing entities, whether nearby neighbors or conglomerates from afar, should abandon the temptation to play in Nepal when the society is in historical transition, where opportunism abounds without care for propriety, transparency or the people’s interest. In the end, it is for Kathmandu’s political class to accept what the Secretary-General’s emissary has suggested – a moratorium on Lumbini for a year, while we catch our collective breath.
(This concludes the two-part article, “Nepal-China: Between Sycophancy and Adventurism”)