Nepal Maoists defend disputed Buddha birthplace deal

August 10th, 2011 - 5:36 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Aug 10 (IANS) Almost a fortnight after controversy erupted over a questionable deal to develop the sacred birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal by a Chinese organisation, the Maoists came to its defence Wednesday, saying the promoter was not Chinese and would seek India’s help as well.

Maoist chief and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda finally broke his party’s deafening silence on the controversial $3 billion deal signed in Beijing to transform Lumbini in southern Nepal into a “Buddhist Vatican” without the knowledge or consent of the host country, Nepal.

The former revolutionary said the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APEC), the Hong Kong-based NGO that had signed the deal with the UN Industrial Development Organisation to develop Lumbini, was not Chinese.

It had members from Japan, the US and Britain and would also seek the assistance of Nepal’s neighbours India and China, Prachanda told journalists Wednesday after his return from an equally controversial visit to Malaysia, reportedly on the invitation of APEC.

Prachanda is a co-chairman of the NGO along with his former bĂȘte noir, Nepal’s unpopular deposed crown prince Paras Bir Bikram Shah, a revelation that has tarnished the organisation’s image in Nepal.

After Nepal’s culture ministry, that is entrusted with developing and preserving Lumbini, said it had no information about the APEC project and would not allow it to proceed, Prachanda sought to defend the NGO, saying it did not intend to bypass the government.

A project like developing Lumbini could proceed only in consultation with the government of Nepal and the assistance of Nepal’s neighbours India and China, Prachanda said, adding that the process to do so had started.

The defence came after China’s envoy to Nepal, Yang Houlan, Tuesday disclosed the fact that Nepal’s tourism and civil aviation ministry, headed by the Maoists, had already signed an MoU with APEC but had not informed the other relevant ministries like culture, finance and foreign affairs.

Concerns have also been raised in Nepal about a possible adverse Indian reaction to the project as Lumbini lies close to the Indian border.

Increased Chinese presence in the sensitive area could ruffle India’s feathers and create additional tension in the region, which Nepal could ill afford, senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit wrote.

This is the Maoists’ second tangle with religion since they came to power after an election in 2008.

They tried to take over the administration of the Pashupatinath temple, the oldest Hindu shrine in Nepal, and sacked the Indian priests, appointing their own men in the latter’s place.

Their then culture minister Gopal Kiranti triggered an international outcry when he led a Maoist attack on the Indian priests inside the temple.

The mounting condemnation worldwide and a rap on the knuckles by the Supreme Court finally forced Prachanda to withdraw and reinstate the sacked priests.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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