LUMBINI, Nepal -- The evening sun setting beyond a plain that continues to northern India turns the white walls of the sacred temple of Lumbini into shining red. The area is totally silent, with the exception of the low voices of nuns reading sutras, as if nothing has changed since the time when Buddha was born here.
But despite the peace and tranquility, turmoil is brewing over Buddha's birthplace in southern Nepal.
A large tourism infrastructure construction plan advocated by a Chinese-affiliated organization intends to transform Lumbini into a magnet for Buddhists in the same way as Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca and Catholics visit the Vatican. The Nepalese are now playing a guessing game on the true intention of the plan.
Lumbini was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Following UNESCO's regulations, the site has kept development at bay, except for a museum and Buddhist temples built by different countries.
Only about 80,000 pilgrims arrive every year from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), China, South Korea, Japan and other Buddhist countries. If Indians, who are exempted from visa requirements, and local Nepalese are included, the figure is still only about 500,000.
But the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), which has a secretariat in Beijing, proposed a tenfold increase in the number of pilgrims to Lumbini.
On Aug. 11, APECF officials told a news conference in Katmandu that it will not only bring water, electricity and other infrastructure to Lumbini but also build luxury hotels, shopping malls and a Buddhist university.
An official at the Nepalese culture ministry that oversees Lumbini pointed out that the foundation also plans to build an international airport and a railway station. The grandiose project also involves extending railways from the Tibet Autonomous Region in China via Katmandu to Lumbini.
The investment totals $3 billion (230 billion yen), comparable to the total annual revenue of the Nepalese government.
"There are 700 million to 1 billion Buddhists around the world," Xiao Wunan, executive vice president of the APECF, told The Asahi Shimbun. "If only 1 percent of them pay pilgrimage to the holy site every year, that should amount to more than 5 million. Demand is all that counts. Where there is demand, there is investment value."
Some locals welcome the plan.
Hari Rai, a senior official at a local tourist information center, said the increase in tourism could enrich the lives of people in neighboring villages left behind in development.
However, local Buddhist circles are more wary.
Venerable Vivekananda at the Panditarama Lumbini International Vipassana Meditation Center said commercialization was not becoming of a holy site. Representatives of local temples from different countries, except for the China temple, held an emergency meeting and sent a letter to the government and political parties to express concerns about the situation.
Last year, an investment bank, led by a former Chinese ambassador to Nepal, came up with a proposal to build one of the world's biggest Buddha statues in a crane sanctuary to the north of the park.
The latest plan surfaced in July this year, when the APECF and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization signed a memorandum of understanding in Beijing concerning the development of Lumbini. Unusual for such a contract, it did not involve the government of Nepal, the stakeholder country.
The UNIDO headquarters in Vienna later denied the validity of the memorandum of understanding, saying it was an unauthorized move by its local chapter in China. The plan, however, is gradually turning into a fait accompli, as senior APECF officials have inspected the site and subcontractors have started measurements.
Xiao emphasized that the APECF is a nongovernmental organization with no direct link to the Chinese government. There have been reports, however, that the Chinese ambassador to Nepal has briefed locally elected politicians on the plan.
“It is generally believed that the project is backed by Beijing,” a Nepalese diplomat said.
Struggles between political parties intensified in Nepal after the monarchy was abolished in 2008. Three prime ministers have resigned successively, whereas a new Constitution has yet to be enacted.
While India, to the south, has historically held sway over Nepal, an increasingly powerful China, to the north, is using economic aid as leverage to exert more influence. A "proxy war" between the two powers, each backing political forces with close ties, is adding to the political turmoil.
Lumbini lies about 3 kilometers from the Indian border. A senior official at the Indian Embassy in Nepal, wary of the development moves, said Lumbini cannot be unrelated to India.
One of APECF’s co-chairmen is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a former prime minister and chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the largest parliamentary group in Nepal.
While in office, Dahal, also known as Prachanda, broke from the tradition of previous prime ministers and visited China before going to India. He is actively promoting the Lumbini project as a leading figure of the pro-China camp.
The response of the Nepalese government has been vacillatory. A secretary in the culture ministry, which oversees Lumbini, refused to sign a document authorizing APECF activities on the grounds that the China-backed project ran against Nepal's national interests. He departed for India immediately after submitting a letter of resignation.
Tibetans in Nepal have other complaints.
On Beijing's request, Katmandu has recently intensified crackdowns on Tibetan refugees. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's highest leader, has not been allowed to visit Lumbini since the 1980s.
"Beijing's intervention in Buddhism is disquieting in itself," said a Tibetan pilgrim in Lumbini.
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