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China’s Buddhist politics now includes Nepal

BY Jayadeva Ranade
There is renewed activism in recent months in Buddhist politics or, more aptly ‘kasayapolitiks’. Two large-scale events, both inextricably linked with Buddhism, are being sponsored by China’s communist regime next month. One of them, which demonstrates Beijing’s continuing interest and expanding influence in Nepal and its exiled Tibetan Buddhist community, will, quite oddly, be attended by UN Secretary General, Ban ki Moon.

China’s new initiative comes in the midst of growing discontent among Tibetans inside China and imposition of stringent security measures in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas inside China. CCTV cameras and armed police have been deployed outside sensitive monasteries like Drepung, Sera and Kirti since February this year. The security budget of Sichuan province’s Aba Prefecture, which has a sizeable Tibetan community, was doubled last year. Especially since last September, at least thirty Tibetans, almost all former monks and nuns below 30 years of age, have committed self-immolation. A sign of their desperation was shockingly manifest for the first time in Delhi on March 26, on the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s arrival for the BRICS summit, when a 26-year-old Tibetan refugee immolated himself.

The three day ‘international’ event in the Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini, which opens on April 28, has as its prime movers Nepal’s leading communist politician Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’ and well known for his proximity to China and a former Nepal minister of culture and Nepal Congress politician, Dr Minendra Rijal. During his visit, Ban ki Moon, who is to be accompanied by UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, will co-chair an international conference on Lumbini with UCPN-Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. An International Peace Conference is also scheduled to be held in Lumbini on April 30. Nepal has, incidentally, declared 2012 as ‘Visit Lumbini Year’.
The Greater Lumbini National Development Directive Committee was constituted by the Government of Nepal last year in a weak bid to appease sentiments of Lumbini’s inhabitants who were upset that a $3 billion development plan proposed by the Chinese government-sponsored Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation was being approved without consultation. Lumbini’s inhabitants remain disgruntled. It was also intended to soothe ruffled Indian feathers. Interestingly, the GLNDDC chairman is UCPN-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or ‘Prachanda’, who is also vice chairman of APECF. Other members include Dr Manglasiddhi Manandhar of CPN-UML, Dr Minendra Rijal of Nepali Congress and Nepal’s current Culture Minister, Gopal Kiranti.

The GLNDDC is not ignoring China’s interests. In an interview posted on photojournalist and blogger Mikel Dunham’s blog, Dr Rijal disclosed he had spoken to Prachanda ‘about why the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation could be good in the future.’ Another indication of sensitivity to China’s interests was his comment on the Dalai Lama’s exclusion from the project. Not entirely ruling out the possibility of the Dalai Lama visiting Lumbini sometime in the future, Rijal said that would be after ‘the leadership of China will find ways to deal with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which will be respectful of the Chinese people.’

Prachanda’s presence on the GLNDDC and APECF implies the APECF would still bankroll Lumbini’s development. The Beijing-based APECF, which had last June proposed the Development Plan for Lumbini ostensibly ‘with no strings attached’, has discernible links to the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army. A group of Malaysian businessmen who had been working for years on a project to make Lumbini a hub for the Buddhist tourist circuit and had initially sought to partner with APECF, have since been squeezed out. The main interest of the Malaysian businessmen was the proposed airport at Lumbini.

Beijing’s second initiative is the hosting of the third World Buddhist Forum from April 25-28, 2012, in Hong Kong. After officially describing Buddhism as a peaceful ‘ancient Chinese religion’ for the first time in 2006, China has held two World Buddhist Forums. These are attempts to obtain legitimacy and support of the domestic and global Buddhist community and tacit recognition of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama, thereby confirming Beijing’s role in approving selection of high-ranking monks including the Dalai Lama. The latter assumes significance following the Dalai Lama’s assertion last September that Beijing has no legitimacy in such selections. The forums are additionally intended to project China’s global leadership of Buddhists.

A large number of Buddhist religious personages, monks and scholars, including from India, have been invited to the Forum. Many have attended earlier Forums. Beijing’s special targets are Tibetan Buddhists and the effort is to influence them, sow division in the Tibetan refugee community and undermine the Dalai Lama. At the same time China seeks to spread its influence among the Tibetan Buddhists who mainly inhabit the Himalayan belt.

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