February 27, 2012
Yesterday, in Kathmandu, I interviewed Kanak Mani Dixit. I asked him to address the controversial issue of the recent $3 billion proposal, apparently spearheaded by a Hong Kong organization, to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The project would transform a backwater holy pilgrimage into an international tourist Mecca. For an impoverished country such as Nepal, whose GDP was $35 billion last year, the Lumbini project would be worth almost 10% of Nepal’s annual GDP.
Where will this money come from? Beijing denies that the Chinese government is financing the project. But evidence suggests that the organizers have close contacts with the Chinese government. The organization is called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a quasi-governmental, non-governmental organization whose executive vice present, Xiao Wunan, is a member of the Communist Party and holds a position at the National Development and Reform Commission, a state agency. It may also be relevant to point out that the first place China’s new ambassador to Nepal chose to visit, following his appointment several months ago, was Lumbini. One additional twist in this story: The Nepali director of the APECF project is Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known to the Western world by his nom de guerre “Prachanda.”
Presuming that the Chinese government is, in fact, behind the project, numerous analysts have suggested that the real goal is for Beijing to marginalize key Buddhist leaders (i.e. the Dalai Lama), who challenge Chinese state dominance, and is meant to co-opt the global Buddhist conversation to make it less Tibetan-influenced. The Dalai Lama would certainly be ignored by the Lumbini proposal. His Holiness has not been allowed to visit Nepal since the 1980s, due to pressure from the Chinese government.
There is also the question of how such a large Chinese presence would affect Nepal’s relations with its giant neighbor to the South, India. Lumbini is but four kilometers from the Indian border.
All of this is to say that the project has been so politicized that it’s almost possible to forget that Lumbini is a profoundly spiritual place. Which brings me to my major concern:
Understanding the importance of preserving heritage, by looking at the forces at play in Lumbini is universally relevant. We should all be concerned, whether we are from Nepal, the United States or Timbuktu. Have we reached the point that political might or corporate power (or both) have become the architects of our spiritual and cultural heritage? Does big money now dictate how we are permitted to experience spirituality? In the 21st century, have we even forgotten to ask ourselves these questions?
In the first of a series of interviews, Kanak Mani Dixit, the controversial Nepali publisher/author expressed his views to me. The full transcription is below.
KANAK MANI DIXIT: There is an existing structure in Nepal to look after Lumbini and to watch over its “development”. There also is a committee in NY [in the United Nations] that is currently defunct, of the Buddhistic countries of which we speak: A committee set up in the Secretariat quite unique in that, from what I know, there is no other international spiritual heritage site that has a committee in the United Nations headquarters. Only Lumbini does. It’s called the International Committee for Development of Lumbini. But it has not functioned now for more that two decades. What we need today is Lumbini to evolve and develop at its own pace. For that you need organizations like UNESCO, the United Nations and the various countries in the United Nations that have interest in Lumbini – to try to prevent Lumbini from being converted into some kind of faith-based Disneyland.
At the same time Lumbini is an economic resource for the people of Nepal, where Lumbini happens to be based. It should serve that purpose, as well, because if there is income to be made, if poor local people can earn an income through the arrival of pilgrims and tourists from elsewhere, that is all for the good.
It’s a question of “how much do you lose in the process of what is a spiritual site for the seekers around the world?” Not just Buddhists, because the Buddha was an historical figure. And many people who may not consider themselves to be Buddhists by religion also takes spiritual energy from a place such as this. I, myself, am an atheist, but I do believe in the importance of Lumbini as a place for spiritual seekers from around the world, Buddhist or otherwise.
There is a master plan for Lumbini put up in the 1970s by a very well known Japanese architect and urban planner named Kenzo Tange. We are very fortunate that this master plan exists for us to have a base that protects Lumbini, because everything has to be judged by that master plan. And things have not necessarily gone according to that master plan. But at least we have a matrix.
The attempt has always been for people to see whether Lumbini may be the goose that lays the golden egg. Business people have gone to Lumbini; they have bought up property around the sacred garden. And I think that all that has happened in a natural course. You cannot criticize something that brings in an income and there is some sharing of income going on as well.
Lumbini should first and foremost – if it is a question of income from Lumbini – it must serve the people of that region. They tend to be a majority of Muslims – the population of the Terai plains in that part of Nepal. They are among the poorest demographic categories in Nepal according to the Human Development Index. But there are other communities of that area as well. So if anybody is going to be served by Lumbini, it should be the poor of that area.
Meanwhile, the idea is to keep Lumbini safe from competitive religions, among the sects of Buddhism. That too is an issue.
What can be done with Lumbini? Firstly, there is the Sacred Garden. If I remember correctly it is one mile by three miles. But, then, that is not all. Because you could have this core, the Sacred Garden, and yet it could be completely urbanized all around. So you would hope that, if there were planned development in Lumbini, as long as there is income for the surrounding population, that Lumbini would not become an urban jungle with a little core that is green.
For many years Lumbini suffered from touristic neglect because, firstly, the people who come to Nepal, they come for the high Himalaya, the Kathmandu Valley – Newari culture – they come for trekking and they come for the Chitwan Jungle and the Terai-based areas where you have tigers and rhinos.
Lumbini was a place where very strongly motivated pilgrims would go. A lot of pilgrims would come in from India and go back to India. The other sites associated with the life of the Buddha are located in what is presently India. The birthplace of Lord Buddha is what is today “Nepal”. We need not go into this very nationalistic or ultra nationalistic debate that goes on in Nepal about claims and counterclaims of where the capital of Buddha’s father was – Kapilvastu. Such a debate mires the spirituality of Buddhism more than it should.
DUNHAM: What is the importance of protecting and maintaining the heritage of pilgrimage to practitioners – not only for Buddhists, but for Hindus as well?
KANAK: I can speak as someone who tries to be a rationalist. I would say that spiritualism and religiosity are lifelines that people take vis-à-vis the unknown of the universe and of the earth. So it’s a very personal matter for each individual to have a belief. A site linked to spirituality – whether it is Mecca, Medina, Bethlehem, the temples of Benares for Hindus, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, or Lumbini, associated with the life of the historical Buddha.
Spiritual pilgrimages help people, I believe, to reach out and gain some mental stability in a chaotic world. To have a site associated with a belief and to have that site as much as it was in the time when the belief was born – that is important.
And so it is important to try to maintain Lumbini, as much as possible, as when Lord Buddha walked these lands. It is not, of course, entirely practical because there is an income that needs to be made. I would like to emphasize that. Income has to be made and shared in equity, as the Lord Buddha, himself, would have probably suggested.
And this is also, of course, an archeological site. Buddhism had disappeared from any kind of scholarship or understanding in South Asia for centuries. Now excavation has returned these artifact to us and we have converted them into, once again, into places of religious or pilgrimage visitations. It is our responsibility to keep Lumbini in tact, as much as possible, now that we have recovered the ruins. The danger, I guess, is that there will be such a competitive push – and this is what I wanted to say – for decades after the Kenzo Tange plan was put in place, there was a kind of benign neglect of Lumbini, which actually saved the place.
Now it seems that there are forces wanting to come in bringing airports and airlines and develop Lumbini as a place of international Buddhist pilgrimage in the modern sense. With high-volume arrivals. There has been interest from Korea and Malaysia. Japan has always been looking at preserving and protecting and also developing Lumbini – various entities in Japan.
DUNHAM: Let’s go back for a moment to the organization that is already in place to protect Lumbini, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT).
KANAK: It is a body set up during the royal era of the Panchayat, which ended in 1990. You have got to give credit to that era for having helped Kenzo Tange do the master plan. And when you look back, after 1990, Lumbini Development Trust, which has the duty of preserving Lumbini, it became a politicized organization.
DUNHAM: After 1990.
KANAK: After 1990. Before that the king gave it to his acolytes to run. There was also an element of competition between the various streams of Buddhism within Nepal. There is Newar Buddhism and there is Himalayan Buddhism. And within them, also, there are various streams. The Dalit Buddhists: It is not yet a large enough and strong enough force in Nepal as they are in India. So you don’t find that having as much of an impact in Lumbini.
So there is some kind of sect-wise competition.
There is also political competition.
Nevertheless, in Nepal you are always forced to look at what might have been. How much worse it might have been. We can pull at our hair and be angry at who did what at LDT. For instance:
Is it appropriate in Lumbini to have each sect of Buddhism to have a building of its own? Is it OK to have buildings looking like the temples of Thailand, Korea, Sri Lanka or Burma, when you know that they are all poured concrete? Could the LDT have ensured that, at the very least, the buildings were put up with the same materials as the original in the land of origin? Could the LDT, in the last 30 years, have developed true forests in that three-square-mile area, instead of having simal trees, which is not an indigenous species for this area at all? It does not evoke the kind of forest that Buddha Shakyamuni may have walked through in that terrain. So it is thirty years, in my view, lost in terms of developing sal forests, a mixed forest. Instead, you’ve got these simal trees. It’s not very evocative of history. I want to keep emphasizing that Buddha is an historical figure.
We also need to try to revive the historicity in this region because Nepal is lucky to have the birthplace of the Buddha. Lots of – I wouldn’t say documentation – but references to give us a sense of what and how things were. We need to have the same kind of forest that was there when the Buddha was alive. In that sense, there are probably many instances of missed opportunities.
There is this whole controversy about whether the Mayadevi Temple, which was excavated in an effort to find the exact location where the Lord Buddha was born. Now they have a marker stone. The question was should that have even been allowed or not?
It’s done, so the marker is a fait accompli and now, in that sense, Lumbini becomes much more attractive to the tourists, because now, you have a place where you see, behind bulletproof glass, a marker stone. Some historians and archaeologists point to that as the exact spot where the Buddha was born. So then that becomes a much more geographically pinpointed kind of place, rather than a spiritual haven.
Still, the marker is there. It is done. The excavation around it certainly gives you a sense of history as to the structures put up by Emperor Ashok to mark the place of Buddha’s birth.
As far as the LDT is concerned, it might have been much worse. So I would not, now, retroactively criticize the LDT. In fact I would want, now, the existing institutions, including LDT, and the committee in New York, to be more pro-active in trying to preserve the spiritual essence of Lumbini, while it attracts tourists by the – not the tens of thousand but – hundreds of thousands in the years to come. And then even more.
So, I think it is important to emphasize going beyond the politicization that has led to Nepal’s politics and to ensure that Lumbini is, in the end, preserved by the institutions that have been created and energizing them and giving them a greater sense of responsibility. And I would say that, by and large, the responsibility has to do with keeping Lumbini as is, as much as possible, while allowing the larger volumes of pilgrims and tourists to visit because you cannot stop it.
They should be welcomed. Each visitor takes something from Lumbini. The question is: How you can you keep it the way it is?
Now, what happened in the most recent instant is an extreme politicization of Lumbini, which is exactly what we should not have. That is the involvement of the Chairman of the United Communist Party of Nepal/Maoist, Mr. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known to some as “Prachanda”. He suddenly got interested in this.
There have always been approaches on Lumbini from various countries, from various organizations to develop Lumbini. People do come to various parts in India associated with the Lord Buddha and they look at Nepal and they look at Lumbini and they are distraught. The Indian sites are well maintained, shall we say. Lumbini is left to its own. People are probably thinking that there should be more facilities in Lumbini. And so people have come to Lumbini with proposals.
One such proposal came out of the blue, in early 2011. A rather mercurial organization called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation [APECF], whose website was incomplete, which was clearly a fly-by-night organization set up to see whether a current existing situation in Nepal might not be utilized to come in without a penny having been raised, but to promise 3 billion dollars, if you just got the signature from the government of Nepal, to allow that organization to look into the development of infrastructure and tourism. It was completely non-transparent and it bypassed the LDT. This is to begin with. Then you looked into and started investigating this organization, and it turns out that it is based in Hong Kong, but the telephone number goes to some Hong Kong police number. It’s not the right number.
Then, initially there was no address and APECF suddenly comes up with an address, but when you actually go there it’s the location of some clothing shop in Hong Kong! Then an agreement is signed between this organization, APECF, and the UNIDO representative, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization representative in Beijing. Then you wonder, and this is something that you don’t know whether the Chinese government is in on this, if the government functionaries are supportive of the idea.
You get conflicting messages, so you wonder if there is deniability, but that, in fact, the Chinese government is supportive of the initiative. Even if it is a trial balloon to see how it goes. If it works, then you can…
This is something I don’t really know for sure.
Anyway, APECF came to Kathmandu. They decided to utilize the good offices of the Maoist Chairman. And not only the Maoist Chairman, but also his former archenemy, the ne’er-do-well son of former King Gyanendra: Prince Paras.
The two of them were supposed to be co-chairmen. Who’s running this thing? Nobody knows. It’s all very murky. They come here, and they end up in Lumbini. They haven’t told anybody anything.
I think, basically, that they thought if they – with the perceived power of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, which in Nepal right now is all-encompassing – they must have thought that going in with him backing the project, and you are making a promise of 3 billion dollars to develop this area, then all opposition would crumble. And you could go in and then, later, make the reality of the three billion dollars, because up until then you haven’t raised a penny. But upon the signature of the Nepali government giving you the go-ahead, you could then raise the money. Why? Because the Nepali government has the monopoly over deciding what goes on in Lumbini. You try to get the government to say “bypass the LTD and do it on your own” or “railroad the LTD into doing this”.
That momentum has, at least, been stymied for now. But what it means is that there are forces at play. We have to be ever watchful for the protection of Lumbini’s spiritual space for those who are spiritually minded. Because it is their, as Nepalis would say, “aastha” their faith that gives Lumbini it’s value.
Now, what is up with Mr. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, this Maoist Chairman?
He and his colleagues started a violent war. It was a mindless violence visited upon the people of Nepal. From 1996 to 2006, depending upon who’s counting – between 13,000 to 16,000 Nepali citizens died as a result of a conflict that was opportunistically started by one party to get ahead – a party who spoke of social justice but carried a knife.
And this party decided that it had created enough of an impact and enough fear sowed in the land that it would do OK above ground and then, jumped above ground in 2006. Since then, we have five years of chaos when this party has cheated on the peace process. Which means that the Chairman of this party has cheated on the promised peace process, which should have ended in September 2008.
We are now in the spring of 2012 and the peace process has not ended. In this connection, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, himself, is a very smart individual who can speak in 15 different tongues to 15 different stakeholders. He can say something to the diplomat, something to the Kathmandu intelligentsia, something to the press, something else to the bureaucracy, and something else to his cadres.
And his point to his cadres is, essentially, “we are here for the revolt. We have come above ground essentially as a tactic.”
I believe that, if the rest of the society is organized, he won’t be able to get away with it. And he will, indeed, have to compromise on behalf of peace and democracy. But for now, he still regards it clearly as a tactic.
More importantly, he and his party have not renounced violence as a tool of political organization. He has given interviews where he has talked about “You may kill, but not torture.” That is the kind of directive he sent through BBC Nepali Service -- he said it in a way so that all Nepali could hear. Fear and intimidation remains in Nepal. These are the primary tactics of the organization. Of course there is extortion. There is moneymaking on a massive scale. There is an Animal Farm too soon. This party has more SUV vehicles than all the other parties of Nepal combined, times three or four.
In every possible way, not having given up violence, wanting to continue this instillation of fear in the population, corruption, extortion, trying to weaken state structures for the sake of Mr. Dahal’s advancement and the party’s advancement. Dahal is a true demagogue.
And this man has now decided that he will use Lumbini for his own purposes! He will also use the cowing down of Nepal’s civil society – who stood very tall against the king, but have succumbed in front of the Maoist tsunami.
It seems that what he has decided – and for me, all evidence points to that direction – to use Lumbini to cleanse himself in the eyes of the world, without, himself, having shown any remorse for the mayhem, killings, the destruction of the economy – fifteen years in running now – the impoverization of the people who were made poorer and forced to go into migration – to India for the poorest; and for those who have a little extra, to mortgage their land and go to the Gulf and Malaysia and further afield. The poorest of the poor have now been faced with an oversupply of workers already trying to earn money in India, leading to reduced salaries.
The person, who would be primarily responsible from the Maoist side, is the Chairman. And this Chairman, without breathing a word of remorse, without having changed the official policy of his party, would now like to utilize Lumbini. And I think it is brazen opportunism to want to present yourself as the Tsar of Lumbini. Again, he’s hoping that the people of Nepal will cow down as the intelligentsia has.
To think that the great birthplace of Buddha – this hallowed ground that happens to be within Nepal – could be sullied and that nobody would speak up!
Mr. Dahal might think that he will get away with it in the short term. But deep down in Nepali society there is extreme disquiet about this kind of manipulation. There will be voices, but for now Mr. Dahal would like to use the silencing of Nepal’s intelligentsia by his party concerning the many parallel crises that have hit Nepal society – from what kind of federalism we should have, what kind of structure of government we should have, the post-conflict rehabilitation question, which has not happened, the restarting of development, which has not happened – all surrounded by silence.
The Nepali people are quite disillusioned and distraught – and amongst all this Mr. Dahal has decided, among the many things he does, he will essentially invade Lumbini and becomes the person who will bring development to Lumbini. In doing that, he can perhaps also serve some geopolitical interests of the various forces of the international community. And what about himself? He will build for himself an unassailable position, as the person who brought billions of dollars. Who did it? Mr. Pushpa Kamal Dahal did it! And therefore, why not just turn a blind eye to what he did to us for fifteen years?
This is the idea.
As far as China is concerned, one doesn’t’ need to look at it only in a conspiratorial way. When one gets into the question of China, one has to get into conjecture. It’s very hard to understand what the Chinese government thinks and what it does and who is calling the shots. Who do you interview to ask these urgent questions about what the Chinese are up to? Since we don’t know, we can only conjecture.
Perhaps the Chinese, with its middle class having grown, and with the middle class requiring some spiritual solace, (as middle classes tend to do after a certain level of well being has been achieved), perhaps the Chinese have turned toward Buddhism. Buddhism, perhaps, provides you with the promise of the afterlife – that other religions that are available in China – historically received religions – may not provide that much. I don’t know too much about Taoism and Confucianism.
But Buddhism seems to give you something that has to do with the afterlife…not only deep personalized, internalized spiritualism. If that were the case, then China would look for other places which exist – there are great places within China – but outside China, there’s one site linked to the historical Buddha that is not within India, and hence more easily accessible for Chinese involvement, investment and for Chinese tourists to visit. Lumbini.
Of course, all the Chinese tourists can go to all the Indian sites as well, but when it comes to investment and involvement, perhaps Lumbini would be more attractive.
Besides, Nepal is a country that might be more willing – and rightly – to countenance Chinese involvement than India, maybe. The Indians are more than capable of developing their own sites of the Buddha.
There could be other angles to these matters and, again this is a matter of conjecture because you don’t know whether anyone is planning these matters in China or whether they are just happening, in which case it would be wrong to ascribe any plan of action.
Given the component of Tibetan Buddhism and its links to the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, then there are additional questions.
If there were a great buildup in Lumbini with Chinese involvement, that would illustrate the Chinese government’s interest and its tilt towards Buddhism which would a) do good to the Chinese establishment and b) possibly help to diffuse the Dalai Lama’s hold on the Buddhist population. It could be that. Where would the Dalai Lama fit in? I don’t really know.
What the Nepalis should be concerned about is that how appropriate would it be to bring in a very strong Chinese presence into the Nepal Terai, very close the Indian border,
While, I do believe that we sometimes exaggerate Nepal’s role in the India-China competition and collaboration, I personally believe that, by and large, when Nepalis (including the Maoists and the former King Gyanendra), have sought to use the so-called “Chinese Card” vis-à-vis India – that has been overdone with a complete lack of understanding at the stratospherically level at which the Chinese and the Indians both collaborate and compete. In that sense, Nepal is not as important as we like to believe. Nevertheless, if it is true that a very powerful neighbor, i.e. India – its establishment -- would take it as vulnerability if there were a strong Chinese presence very near the Indian border, we need to be careful.
This is something that the Nepali establishment should be very careful about. I don’t know if any thought went into this aspect, when the APECF proposal came along.