March 27, 2012
The huge Chinese offer to develop Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Buddha, has been shelved. The Hong Kong organization behind the $3 billion offer, the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), has regrouped in the wake of outcry over the paucity of its credentials, evidence that China’s government was behind the scheme and the questionable suitability of Prachanda being named co-chairman in the first place.
This week, APECF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nepali government to spend US$ 100,000 a year for the next five years -- a far cry from the original $3 billion but still a significant sum.
And still, the tainted scent of the APECF model lingers. APECF has not gone away. APECF hasn't changed. The forces behind APECF haven't changed. Only the amount it intends to spend in Lumbini has changed.
What is really behind Beijing’s interest in Buddhism and Lumbini? What would Lumbini look and feel like if China were given free reign?
I asked Jayadeva Ranade, one of India’s leading strategic analysts to discuss these questions in a recent interview.
Jayadeva Ranade, a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India is a seasoned China analyst with over 25 years experience in the field. His foreign assignments included Hong Kong, Beijing and his last foreign posting, prior to retirement in late 2008, was as Minister in the Indian Embassy in Washington.
Mr Ranade is presently a Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). CAPS is assisted by the Indian Air Force and was set up by Air Commodore (Retd) Jasjit Singh, who was formerly the Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
Mr. Ranade contributes to many mainstream national newspapers, magazines and leading publications, mostly on strategic and security issues relating to China, his chosen field of specialization.
DUNHAM: When did you become aware of the $3 billion Lumbini-development offer from the Hong Kong group?
RANADE: Around May-June 2011.
DUNHAM: What conclusions have you come to concerning the legitimacy of APECF?
RANADE: There are serious doubts regarding the APECF. Any outfit that is prepared to hand out US$ 3 billion, which is an enormous sum of money especially for a poor country like Nepal, is undoubtedly either backed by a powerful government or is confident of getting highly profitable returns in the foreseeable future. I understand that the APECF’s contact details were dodgy, at least in June-July 2011.
DUNHAM: Beijing denied that the money would come from the Chinese government. But what ties, in your estimation, does APECF have to the central government of China?
RANADE: In China, it is the Chinese Communist Party, which controls everything including the government.
In the case of APECF, the affiliations of the individuals associated with it says it all.
One individual is a member of the CCP, an employee of the government and founder-proposer of the World Buddhist Forums (being organized by Beijing). The other has links to the PLA Air Force. Prachanda, who is a Vice Chairman of APECF is a Maoist and well known for his proximity to Beijing. It was during his brief stint as Prime Minister of Nepal that Kathmandu-Beijing ties rapidly developed, including in the military and security fields. The funding offered by APECF would undoubtedly have come from Chinese government or CCP CC United Front Department coffers.
DUNHAM: So – presuming that the Chinese government was involved -- what would China want in return for a $3 billion development package?
RANADE: China has many interests in Nepal. In addition to acquiring considerably expanded influence in Nepal – which it has been trying to do for decades – it would have a base for closely monitoring activities of the Tibetan community in Nepal and engaging in activities of its interest on the Nepal-India border. It would additionally build an airport, which will be of dual (civil and military) use.
Development of Lumbini is a long-term project implying Chinese physical presence on India’s borders for a long time. Nepal’s lack of skilled, or even adequate, manpower ensures that Chinese companies will bring in labor. There is a high probability that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will supply the labor or get the construction contracts. Once Lumbini begins developing, Beijing will ensure that Chinese tourists visit it thus bringing regular revenue for the Nepal government and increasing its dependence on Beijing. This will increase Chinese influence in Nepal.
DUNHAM: What about the spiritual aspect of Lumbini? Buddhism is unique in major world religions in that it has no overarching international structure. Does China see a vacuum in Lumbini, just waiting to be filled? Is it possible that China would like to be recognized as the senior patron of Buddhism worldwide?
And how would this affect the role of the Dalai Lama, who, for all practical purposes is the current figurehead of international Buddhism? Is it China’s intention to marginalize the Dalai Lama’s importance by assuming the role of the “real” leader in “representing” Buddhism worldwide?
RANADE: Certainly Buddhism has no centralized or overarching international—or in cases even national—structure. Few realize that the Dalai Lama is actually not even the head of his own sect, namely the Gelugpa (Yellow Hats). However, today the Dalai Lama is the popularly accepted “face” of Buddhism worldwide. The Chinese communist regime is playing a long-term game of waiting out the Dalai Lama. Till then they are ingressing Buddhist—especially Tibetan Buddhist—communities and trying to win over and suborn high ranking and influential monks, nuns and religious personages.
As part of this effort they have organized two World Buddhist Forums with the third being convened this April. On each occasion numerous foreign and Chinese Buddhists are invited along with foreign academics and scholars in a bid to influence them to accept the Chinese views. Attempts are made to win them over through lavish hospitality, concessions like permission to renovate or rebuild their original monasteries in Tibet, and gifts. Personages, monks, nuns and scholars of influence resident in India and Nepal are special targets. China has scored some successes as evident from the personages who attended the 60th anniversary celebrations of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation.”
Additionally, there is a determined attempt to legitimize the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama by bringing him to the Forum and getting the delegates to greet him. The ground is being readied for similar “legitimization” of the next Dalai Lama, who the Chinese will select after the present Dalai Lama passes from the scene. In the process China is positioning itself as the world’s “representative” of Buddhism and Buddhist countries. It will seek to use this as a bloc in international affairs.
China is already trying to marginalize the Dalai Lama. It is encouraging elements opposed to the Dalai Lama like worshippers of the Shugden Deity.
He has not been invited to the previous two World Buddhist Forums and, in fact, for the second Forum was specifically excluded because he was a “disruptive element”.
There is persistent criticism that he is engaged in “splittism” and anti-China activities. Recently the Chinese authorities have been accusing him of encouraging and “financially compensating” the Tibetans who committed self-immolation. By inviting monks and religious personages to their events, China is in effect weakening the Dalai Lama’s influence albeit gradually. If China’s designs succeed, then the impact could be felt after his demise.
So for me, Mikel Dunham, the question is this: In the future – in Lumbini or anywhere else, for that matter – do I want to experience Buddhism as if I were attending a "no-Dalai Lama-allowed"-LasVegas-meets-StarWars Olympics extravaganza?
Or would I prefer this?
Perhaps the slow, methodical, small-budget, non-glamorous development of Lumbini is one of the best things that has happened to Nepal in decades. If only the Dalai Lama were not verboten.