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Battleground Lumbini

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Tuesday, Apr 10, 2012
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Japanese Stupa in Lumbini, Nepal

Lumbini, an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site, is now an arena of conflict; Nepal’s Maoist government is promoting a multi-billion dollar development plan supported by the United Nations with funding from investors with multiple links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, lies in the dense forest of southwestern Nepal, 6 kilometers from the Indian border, a Buddhist sanctum in a Hindu nation, surrounded by Muslim villages, abandoned for millennia, unearthed by European archeologists in the 19th century. Today Lumbini is a UNESCO and World Heritage Site and a pilgrimage destination for the world’s 1 billion Buddhists.

Lumbini is also an arena of conflict, as Nepal’s Maoist government advances a multibillion dollar plan to develop the site with the public support of the United Nations, and a group of international investors, many aligned with the Chinese Communist Party.

On March 12, 2012, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced plans to visit Nepal in April 2012, to promote the new Lumbini project. Nepal seldom receives envoys of such stature, only one UN Secretary General has ever journeyed to this remote Himalayan nation; U Thant of Burma, a devout Buddhist, came in 1967, also to visit Lumbini.

The Lumbini plan purportedly endorsed by Secretary Ban Ki-moon is controlled by Nepal’s top Maoist, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known by his revolutionary nom de guerre “Prachanda”, or, The Fierce One. Kathmandu newspapers swelled with voices of concerned citizens asking why would Sec. General Ban Ki-Moon endorse Dahal, a Hindu Brahmin and Supreme Commando of Nepal’s traumatic civil war, as the overseer of a hallowed Buddhist site.

In 1996 Dahal launched his insurgency, Maoist troops violently stormed Nepali villages, looted banks and businesses, slaughtered over 15,000 citizens, kidnapped and tortured men, women and, in great number, children, to hoist rifles for his People’s Liberation Army which conquered the Shah-Rana dynasty and put the Maoists in power.

In 2011 Nepal’s Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, appointed Dahal head of the new Lumbini Development National Steering Committee. Dahal – seemingly overnight –procured $3 billion for the project from a dubious Hong Kong agency known as APECF, the Asia-Pacific Cooperation and Exchange Foundation, co-chaired by himself and a one Mr. Xiao Wunan, and other investors with multiple links to the Chinese Communist leadership in Beijing.

Dahal made headlines in 2011 after he went to Beijing, to cut a deal with APECwith the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) scuttling the authority of UNESCO and the senior Lumbini Development Trust. Nepali and UN officials denounced the backroom deal as illegitimate.

On March 21, 2012, a UN spokesperson announced that Secretary Ban K-moon postponed his trip to Nepal, citing concerns about “lack of preparation” by the government. But the project is still in play; in late 2011, the Maoist government hastily declared 2012 “Visit Lumbini Year” without consulting Nepal’s tourist industry leaders. Yang Houlan, China’s ambassador to Nepal made Lumbini his first official sojourn when he assumed his post in 2011.

Journey to Kapilavatsu

Lumbini is one of Nepal’s hidden treasures, an eight-hour drive from Kathmandu through mountain gorges pierced by the Tista River’s turquoise waters, till the road veers south and enters the Terai, where the land is flat, the jungle is thick, and the air is moist.

Maya Devi Mandir, Lumbini, Nepal

As Lumbini draws near, an invisible grace descends. The Maya Devi Temple encloses the ancient bricks of Kapilavatsu, where in the 6th century BC Queen Maya dreamt of a white elephant entering her torso, and where she gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, who took five steps and proclaimed “I am supreme in the world; this is my last life.” Queen Maya died soon thereafter, and Siddhartha’s father kept his son captive within the palace for many years. One night the prince escaped and saw a leper, a beggar and a corpse, whereupon he renounced his kingdom and commenced his quest for enlightenment.

From dawn till nightfall, pilgrim travelers bow and pray before the holy ground, the reverent calm intermittently punctured by a creaking generator pumping water from a pond into parched grass.  Monks gather beneath pipal trees linked by strings of Tibetan prayer flags, lungta, diffusing blessings upon the wind.

In 1978, in partnership with UNESCO, the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed a long maiden of red brick with eastern and western zones for the Theravada and Mahayana lineages.  In the course of the hour-long “monastery tour” you wander through sanghas from, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, India, China and Nepal and touch all of Asia, in the midst of Nepal’s fecund jungle.

Lumbini is still very much a sacred place, there are some hotels, but no malls or luxury resorts, it is not a “Buddhist Disneyland” as is often reported, not yet. While Lumbini is rich in history and beauty, the local communities are poor, it is an antique land where buffaloes wade through rice paddies, mothers stir dal baat over wood fires, jackals and vultures rule the night. It has remained so for centuries, from the time when the Buddha wandered through these forests, 2500 years ago.

The Dahal- APECF plan proposes a series of luxury hotels and retail outlets, financed by international investors, which has many long term stakeholders concerned about preserving the sanctity of the site and how the local community would benefit.
In October 2011, the US government cancelled its annual contribution to UNESCO.  China made a first-time donation of $8 million. Qatar gave $20 million. UNESCO has been active in Nepal for decades, promoting education, science and culture. The loss of US support leaves a void China can easily fill with its wealth and strategic proximity to Nepal from occupied Tibet. Lumbini, secluded in Nepal’s deep Terai, is now within China’s sphere of influence.

Chairman Mao in the Land of the Buddha

So why is China’s Politburo trying to take control of Lumbini? Many analysts believe one motive is to weaken the stature of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers whom Beijing regards as political rivals for the narrative of Tibet – and Buddhism — past and future. The Dalai Lama has only been allowed to visit Nepal once, for 6 hours in 1981, where he held a prayer service at Lumbini.

Should the Maoist/Chinese plan to develop Lumbini be approved, the Dalai Lama, the living symbol of the Buddhist faith, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and for 53 years a refugee monk in India, would most certainly be excluded.

The explosion of protest by self-immolation in Tibet has created a public relations nightmare for the Chinese Communist Party. The crisis was ignited by China’s systematic campaign of religious persecution of Tibetan Buddhists; PLA troops control all Tibetan monasteries, monks are forced into communist “re-education” – citizens are killed, arrested and tortured for defending their faith. The Chinese Communist Party has also declared control over the selection of “tulkus”, reincarnate lamas, stating that it will choose the next Dalai Lama, while slandering him as a “Nazi” and “incestuous murderer” at every turn.

Tibetan refugees, who have lived peaceably with their Nepali hosts for 53 years, are now under assault by the Maoist government. Tibetan lamas are still accorded great respect by Nepali people and the “Tibet Brand” has for decades brought tourists and wealth to Nepal, but in anxious gatherings in Kathmandu, Tibetans ponder how they can survive with China’s long hand reaching into what Mao called “Tibet’s Five Fingers”: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal.

Lumbini and Nepali Nationalism

The battle for Lumbini has mobilized Nepalis as an issue of nationalism and sovereignty. Shakun Sherchand, president of Concerned Buddhist Citizens of Nepal wrote the following in an open letter to Ban Ki-moon:

“Pushpa Kamal Dahal is an atheist, Maoist Brahmin. He has pointed out repeatedly that power must be captured “through the barrel of the gun”. This is a violation of the Buddhist principle of ahimsa (non violence). Dahal’s criminal track record must be tried in the International Court of Justice. He has given credibility to violence at the expense of more than 15,000 lives. Recently, he has been facing corruption charges of mishandling party funds for personal benefits by his own party comrades.

“He is not ethnically a Buddhist or an evangelical Buddhist nor has he contributed intellectually to Buddhism and Buddhist rights. It would be morally correct for Dahal to step down as the President of Lumbini Development National Directive and replace him with a high thinking Buddhist lama. May you advise Dahal, not to turn the home of Buddha into a war zone, seeking credibility from the UN by tampering on Buddhist rights, starting with Lumbini.”

Kul Chandra Gautam, former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, said to journalist Mikel Dunham: “The main rationale for UN’s involvement in Lumbini is to spread the culture of peace, not to condone the glorification of violence. It would be most ironic for the Secretary-General of the UN to co-chair a meeting with an unrepentant leader with blood in his hand in the holy birth place of Buddha, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace and non-violence throughout the world”.

Death threats have been made against Kul Chandra Gautam and the distinguished journalist Kanak Man Dixit, who pointed out many flaws in the Maoist Lumbini scheme. The January 2012 issue of Lalrakshak (Red Guards) called Dixit an “enemy of the people.”  In a 2012 report the Committee to Protect Journalists documented a spike in murders of Nepali journalists under the Maoist government.

Said a senior Nepali Buddhist in Kathmandu; “The Chinese Communist Party destroyed thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and China, they persecute Buddhist practitioners, they officially label Buddhism “a disease to be eradicated.” They want Lumbini so they can control the future of our faith, to control what they see as a threat to the Communist Party. The world’s Buddhist community should be very concerned about this.”

Lumbini, Tibet, and the Global Buddhist Dialogue

Lumbini is a battleground of symbolism and truth, as China advances its hegemonic ambitions across Asia, whilst struggling to conceal the factional battles raging within the Politburo and the crises of governance erupting across their empire.

There is one force that could vanquish the violent creed of Mao; the world’s one billion Buddhists. Tibetans are an integral part of this global sangha. The contest for Lumbini presents an opportunity to garner support for Tibet – at this calamitous hour – within the global Buddhist dialogue.

It is time to mobilize, to ask, who should define the future of Lumbini? Chairman Mao or Gautama Buddha?

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