February 28, 2012
Kul Chandra Gautam is one of Nepal’s most distinguished international civil servants. He served as Assistant Secretary General of the UN and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. He was Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Nepal on International Affairs and the Peace Process. He is a seasoned diplomat and civic leader and serves on the Boards of a number of international and national foundations and charitable organizations.
Why would Gautam be fingered as an enemy of the Maoists? Mr. Gautam has consistently argued that Prachanda’s involvement in Lumbini – specifically, Prachanda’s appointment as director of the controversial $3 billion Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) project – be more transparent. Toward the end of 2011, Gautam published an article in Republica called “Ten Question on APECF’s Plans”, cautioning the country to take a much closer look at both China’s and Prachanda’s roles in the Lumbini proposal.
Yesterday, I spoke with Mr. Gautam in Kathmandu. The “Ten Questions” article is included at the end of his interview.
DUNHAM: When I say “Lumbini Project” what comes to your mind?
GAUTUM: There is no one Lumbini Project, there are many Lumbini projects.
Actually, the whole effort to develop Lumbini started when U-Thant visited Nepal three decades ago and set up a Lumbini Development Committee at the United Nations, comprised of many countries. And the Lumbini Development Trust [LDT] was started here [in Nepal]. A few development activities started. You had Kenzo Tange, who prepared a master plan. That was supposed to be the plan we were going to follow for the development of Lumbini. So that was the origin.
The LDT, in a way, continues. It has gone through ups and downs. There have times of, “Wow! This is a great thing for us to do! Lots of excitement with King Mahendra, King Birendra, all the leaders of Nepal!” There were very exciting times when U-Thant was personally lending his authority. And there were many, many Buddhist countries – Japan, Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka – showing interest, trying to help develop Lumbini. As you know, there are many temples, monasteries in Lumbini built by various countries.
But the master plan was never fully implemented.
Meanwhile, I see that even in the last few years there are multiple development ideas that many people have offered. There is the official LDT. That is a government entity, but it seems not very active these days. It is there. It has some ex officio members: The Minister of Culture is the Chairman; the Vice-Chairman is now Acharya Karma Sangbo Sherpa. The chair in the old days used to be the King. The Vice-Chairmen were there for a long time. But they did not really seem to achieve much.
The International Committee for Development of Lumbini, at the U.N. used to meet, from time to time. It’s chair was, at one point, I remember, maybe it was twenty years ago, the former King Gyanendra, when he was a prince: He was the Chair. But that committee has become defunct. It kind of just died after U-Thant died and the other Secretary Generals did not take as strong an interest. And Nepal, itself, was not pushing for it. So that was kind of disbanded.
But meanwhile, many entrepreneurs have presented many ideas – Nepalis as well as international entrepreneurs. There is a Korean group very interested in development. There is a Malaysian group very interested in developing an airport and bringing in Air Asia. All kinds of ideas! There is a Chinese group trying to build the tallest Buddha in the world in Lumbini. And I would say the most recent group, the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Forum [APECF] is the latest entrant into the panorama of so many groups being interested.
But meanwhile, Nepalis have also, from time to time, taken an active role. They go hot and cold, as you know, but a few months ago, the Nepal government decided to form a committee or board for the development of Lumbini under the chairmanship of the Maoist Chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
This committee went to New York to visit the Secretary General. The Secretary General had shown interest. And UNESCO, which should be involved, had also shown its interest, from time to time. It was UNESCO that declared Lumbini a world heritage site.
DUNHAM: And the APECF?
GAUTAM: This APECF organization kind of came out of the blue. Nobody had heard of it. But, as you rightly say, they came dangling three billion dollars of “Monopoly” money or whatever fictitious money it is, and they were kind of dazzling everybody with an international group of advisors, investors, venture capitalists – whoever they are – prominent people from USA, from Thailand, from Malaysia, etc., and with Prachanda and Prince Paras (at one point) as co-chairs.
So, that is what I understand is the latest lay of the land, as it were.
There are the private entrepreneurs wanting to contribute to the development of Lumbini. And there is the official part, which are the LDT, the UN and the government. So a lot of talk. But actually in terms of the real development of Lumbini, that is another story. This is not Rome, this not Mecca, this not like any of the important world religious headquarters. In fact, I have the feeling that some of the other Buddhist sites in India are being developed better and getting more attention.
Last year, I was in Bhod Gaya. I think there is a lot more happening there. There is a very nice new airport. The Bodh Gaya temple complex looks nice and clean and tidy. It’s much more impressive than Lumbini. And of course, in India, there is an effort to develop the old Buddhist university: Nalanda, the world’s oldest university. There is also some effort going on to develop the whole Buddhist circuit, with Sarnath, Bodh Gaya etc.
Compared to the efforts going on in India, I think there is nothing comparable happening in Nepal at the moment. But I think we all dream about Lumbini being the major world pilgrimage site for Buddhists all over the world. Those who may not necessarily be Buddhists, but who are inspired by the teachings of Buddha on peace and non-violence – it is there place as well.
DUNHAM: Which would include Hindus.
GAUTAM: Yes, yes.
DUNHAM: What are the ramifications of a Chinese backed three billion dollar project, dropped into a site four kilometers from the Indian border?
GAUTAM: I’m not sure how seriously we should take the APECF project in the first instance. The possibility of this happening is a big question mark. This might all fizzle out into nothing. Or it might develop into something. Still, I think we should be watching, observing and being alert. The most important thing that is needed is transparency.
Let us be clear as to what this is all about. There were ten questions that I asked [see article below] that APECF needed to clarify. “Who are they? What are they? What are their objectives? What else do they do? Is their motive profit making or non-profit? Is there motive spiritual or commercial?”
This is all very murky. The documents that we have seen were prepared hurriedly. The documents don’t read like a three billion dollar project. These are documents that you or I could write at Shangri-la Hotel in a few hours! So this could be all fly-by-night, dazzling stuff.
But on the other hand, some of the people that they say are part of their board or their group are very prominent people: a former deputy prime minister of Thailand, a big business tycoon in Malaysia, a Rockefeller from America, etc. You cannot easily dismiss that either.
In terms of ramifications, I would not want to go overboard in either scaring people or underestimating it. It is right now a bit fictitious. I’m not sure how much importance we should give it.
If it were to happen, as APECF says it would happen in their original document, then obviously there would be ramifications. The question is would it happen transparently or in an opaque way. If it would happen transparently – everything on the table – it could be a wonderful thing.
But it should be subject to debate and discussion and input...
DUNHAM: And scrutiny…
GAUTAM: And scrutiny. I have the feeling that this group wanted to pull a fast one. We can’t accept that. Many Nepalis and the international community have spoken about this.
One day, suddenly, some high profile name, an Australian “somebody” ends up in Lumbini. No prior notice, no agreement, no announcement and then suddenly they say they have a press conference. You do not do a three billion dollar project like that. It has to be much more mature, thoughtful and transparent.
I hesitate to speculate on a project that seems so flimsy.
If it were to happen, I think that we would want to ensure a couple of things.
1) Lumbini, first and foremost, is a religious and spiritual site. That must be respected and must be put center stage. We have Kenzo Tange’s master plan. That cannot be thrown out the window. It was a seriously prepared plan. It was very thoughtfully done. We can do more than that plan but it must remain at the core. So first and foremost: the spiritual dimension; and there you will need the input –not from businessmen and tycoons but – people who are scholars and with religious personalities with in-depth knowledge of these issues.
2) My understanding is that they want to build a much bigger infrastrucure, not necessarily at the sacred places of Lumbini but in the surrounding area. Building an airport, helping the community develop, etc. To me, some of that, if done thoughtfully, would be a good thing. The only thing I would want to avoid is: don’t turn this sacred area into a Disneyland or a Los Vegas. It has to be done tastefully and befitting a spiritually site.
But let’s remember that there are ordinary people living in the surrounding communities. If we can do anything to uplift their living standards, that’s a wonderful thing to do. We must do that. I would be quite positive about developing the hinterland. I would be very pleased if we could the development extend beyond Lumbini – going to the neighboring districts and other archeological sites. That would be a wonderful thing to do. Nothing like that has been done. And that is the kind of thing that would require two, three, four billion dollars!
You were also asking about India, China and the international dimensions. Frankly, my feeling is that, if such a project is done transparently, with involvement of Nepalis who are experts in the various areas, who are responsible, who are accountable – I do not think that there aught to be too many sensitivities.
Nepal’s foreign policy is such that we want to be friends with both India and China. We do not want to do anything against the interests of India or China. It is a sound policy. And there need not be international problems.
If we do something of that [$3 billion] scale, I would hope that we would link up with India and their plans to develop the Buddhist circuit from Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, to Kushinagar to Sarnath – and let it all fit into an even larger master plan.
OK, so there could be Chinese groups along with the others developing – let’s do it in a coordinated manner so that it all becomes a wonderfully huge Buddhist circuit. It can be done and in a non-threatening way…to anybody.
What we need to avoid is hush-hush, hanky-panky goings-on. If we are transparent, let’s take India into our confidence. The more openly we do it, the better it is.
China and India – the way I look at it – they want to develop good relations. I think in this country, we are too full of conspiracy theories. People think, “Oh! India is against China! We play this card and that card!” All of this is nonsense, to me. China and India are two huge world powers and, as world powers, they have their strategic interests, but they are not petty – trying to take advantage, a little here, a little there. That’s what many Nepalis imagine. I think Nepal and Lumbini are only small pieces in terms of China-India relations. They are talking about 100 billion dollars in trade. They look at it from that kind of perspective. Let’s not be overly suspicious and speculating about their interests. I don’t like to do that. Let’s bring everybody into confidence. Let’s do it aboveboard.
TEN QUESTIONS ON APECF’S PLANS By Kul Chandra Gautam (first published in Republica)
There has been great excitement, debate and controversy about the plans of the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) to mobilize investment of US$3 billion plus for the development of Lumbini as a Special Development Zone (SDZ).
After four decades of failed attempts to develop Lumbini into a global pilgrimage site worthy of one of the world’s oldest and greatest religions with nearly a billion followers, any serious and ambitious plan for its development should be warmly welcomed. So far, Nepal has never had any development project worth US$3 billion in foreign direct investment. So naturally the proposed project by APECF arouses a mixture of awe, enthusiasm, curiosity and questions.
The mystery surrounding APECF, its history, origins, the secretive manner in which it seems to operate, its highly unorthodox approach – e.g. sudden unannounced Board meetings, sudden unplanned “guerilla ambush” type of visits to project sites, the lack of any published records of its constitution, criteria for selection of board members, no information on its bank accounts, financial procedures, etc. raise serious questions about the credibility of the organization.
One gets the impression that this is the initiative of some well-connected entrepreneurs who want to bamboozle a poor, chaotic country in transition, with promises of huge investment invoking the names of some big business tycoons and political personalities of various countries. The intention seems to be to dazzle the investment-hungry Nepalis by dangling big names and huge sums of money to secure a profitable investment opportunity bypassing normal due diligence review of projects of such magnitude and importance.
Before this project goes any further, its sponsors need to answer the following 10 questions:
(1) What is the real purpose of APECF? Besides development of Lumbini, what other projects has it implemented so far? Where can we find the records of its past activities and achievements?
(2) Is APECF a private foundation? A charity? An investment company? What does it offer to potential investors? Are the members of the Foundation included as investors, lobbyists, or as voluntary, philanthropic individuals?
(3) What exactly are its links with the Government of China? Perhaps the high-level Chinese delegation arriving in Nepal today can explain this, and clarify how mindful it is of the geo-political sensitivities concerning a project of this nature and magnitude being negotiated with a transitional government in the current unstable circumstances of Nepal.
(4) A MOU signed between APECF and UNIDO in Beijing on June 15, 2011 says that the mission of APECF is to “provide full range of support for the project entitled ‘promotion of South East Asian IPA Network’. What is this project, and the IPA network? How does Lumbini fit into this network? How does Nepal, a country in South Asia, fit into a ‘South East Asian’ network?
(5) Is there a constitution of the Foundation? Does it specify how its Board members are selected? How were Prince Paras and Pushpa Kamal Dahal (identified as Mr Prachandpath in the plaque provided to the chairman of the UCPN (Maoist) by the organization) selected to be co-chairpersons of the Foundation? Who proposed their names?
(6) A Mr Xiao Wunan is apparently the executive vice-chairman. So who is the chairman? Why is the chairman’s name kept a secret? Who are the other office-holders? How many full-time staff does APECF employ? Are there minutes of the APECF meetings, including the ones said to have been attended by the Nepali co-chairmen? Are these minutes available for the public to review?
(7) Where does APECF keep its bank account(s)? What are its sources of income and the breakdown of its expenditures? Who audits its financial reports? Is an audited report of its financial accounts available?
(8) Did Pushpa Kamal Dahal consult his party or the Government of Nepal before joining the Foundation as its co-chairperson? As a former prime minister, influential political leader, and potential future Head of State or Government of Nepal, will Mr Dahal refrain from participating or voting or influencing any decision-making on the possible Lumbini project to avoid any conflict of interest?
(9) Are the co-chairpersons of the Foundation paid honoraria? Do they get any shares or dividends in this Foundation’s investment or profits? Does APECF pay for the travel and other costs of persons accompanying co-chairpersons Paras and Prachanda when they attend its Board meetings?
(10) Is it within the jurisdiction of the UNIDO office in China to sign a project agreement with a private foundation based in Hong Kong for the development of a project in a third sovereign Member State of the United Nations, without official consultation with or concurrence of the government of such country, and without any coordination with the UN country team in that country?
Unless these very basic questions are answered satisfactorily, the Government of Nepal would be ill-advised to proceed any further with this project. The government should treat APECF as any other private investor or consortium of investors looking for an investment opportunity in Nepal. Government ministers and officials are expected to keep a certain distance from private investors seeking government contracts and business opportunities, so as not to compromise their objectivity vis-a-vis other competing potential investors, and to avoid any conflict of interest in their official duties.
APECF is not a multilateral or bilateral donor agency, nor an inter-governmental organization like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, or a UN agency. So it is highly inappropriate for any senior government official or autonomous government body like the Lumbini Development Trust to roll-out the red carpet to receive a business delegation that parachutes into Kathmandu or Lumbini without prior notice, invitation or mutually agreed plan.
Nepal risks turning into a “Banana Republic” if any visitor dangling the promise of a big bundle of cash is welcomed as a state guest, and organizations with dubious credentials, no prior track record of any achievement, and with secretive working methods, are treated as serious investors without any due diligence vetting.
We must warmly welcome potential partners and investors who come with good intentions and serious plans for the development of Lumbini, keeping in mind its historical, religious and cultural importance of the national as well as global pilgrimage site. We must protect the sanctity of the World Heritage Site even as we seek to develop Lumbini and its surrounding region for the sake of the people of Nepal. Lumbini’s development must respect the letter and intent of the carefully prepared master-plan of architect Kenzo Tange. It must involve credible and concerned international organizations like UNESCO and the United Nations itself.
The views and advice of Buddhist scholars and archeologists should be sought in developing Lumbini so that we do not inadvertently turn a sacred spiritual site into a money-making Disneyland or Las Vegas. Lumbini is too sacred to be turned into an experimental ground for unscrupulous venture capitalists, but true investors and partners conducting their operations with professionalism, dignity and transparency should be welcomed with open arms, and the customary hospitality of the Nepali society.