Nepal parliament probes dubious Buddha birthplace deal

August 17th, 2011 - 5:10 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Aug 17 (IANS) Alarmed by reports that a little-known organisation had signed a grandiose $3 billion plan with a UN agency to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, without even informing the host country, Nepal’s parliament has formed a committee led by its chairman Subash Nembang to probe the secretive deal.

On Tuesday, the panel summoned Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, Culture Minister Khagendra Prasad Prasain and bureaucrats from the ministries concerned to question them about the announcement by the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation (APEC) Foundation last month that it would develop Lumbini into a “Buddhist Mecca” with the help of the UN Industrial Development Organisation.

Both the ministers professed ignorance about the plan, which includes building an international airport in Lumbini, a rail network, a Buddhist university and hotels.

Committee members are calling the unauthorised “Lumbini Recovery Plan” a threat to Nepal’s sovereignty. Some of them have also demanded that two Nepalis, who have been named as the co-chairmen of the controversial NGO, be summoned for questioning.

They are former Nepali prime minister and chief of the Maoist party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, as well as his bĂȘte noir, deposed playboy crown prince Paras Bir Bikram Shah.

While the ponytailed former prince with a penchant for guns and brawls has remained silent on the controversy, Prachanda has tried to defend it saying efforts were on to begin consultations with the government.

The defence came after the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Yang Houlan, reportedly told a member of Nepal’s parliament that APEC had already signed a memorandum of understanding for the project with the Tourism Minister, Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma, who too belongs to Prachanda’s Maoist party.

The parliament committee has now asked the foreign ministry to provide it details about the deal, signed in Beijing last month.

The house move comes after a former top UN official raised questions about the deal.

Kul Chandra Gautam, former UN assistant secretary-general, flayed the scheme, saying: “The intention seems to dazzle the investment-hungry Nepalis by dangling big names and huge sums of money to secure a profitable investment opportunity bypassing normal due diligence review of projects of such magnitude and importance.”

Gautam is also asking questions about APEC, which has kept the identity of its chief secret, its track record and financial details.

The former UN official has also criticised the Nepali body, Lumbini Development Trust, which last week laid out a “red carpet” welcome for a visiting APEC team, saying it was “highly inappropriate”.

There is growing public criticism in Nepal too.

Prachanda, a former revolutionary who spearheaded a 10-year insurgency that killed over 17,000 people, was lampooned in a newspaper Wednesday as “Comrade Monk of Lumbini Inc”.

“By the involvement of a Comrade Monk and making Lumbini a politico-economic object, a new kind of political intimidation has emerged,” said the leader in the Himalayan Times daily Wednesday. “This is not either a healthy or wealthy sign when theoretically non-materialistic comrades are competing to mint money in the name of the Buddha.”

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

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