A little-known Chinese foundation has announced plans to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, as a major tourist destination, but the project's future is uncertain.
The Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) said it wants to develop Lumbini “into a magnet for Buddhists in the same way as Mecca is to Muslims and the Vatican for Catholics.”
The plans call for hotels, an airport, and conference halls to be established in the out-of-the-way pilgrimage site in southern Nepal, near the Indian border.
Nepal’s government has yet to approve the project, however, and questions remain about the mysterious foundation and its backers and the role of the United Nations in the controversial venture, which is expected to cost $3 billion.
The plan to commercially develop Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been “blessed by the Chinese government,” said project promoter Xiao Wunan, APECF executive vice chairman, in a statement on the foundation’s website.
Reached for comment about whether it supports the plan, and about possible damage to the site if the project goes ahead, UNESCO said only that it supports “the integration of heritage protection concerns into any regional planning.”
“UNESCO advocates for a development of the Greater Lumbini Area that is focused on the spiritual, cultural, and archaeological assets linked to Buddha,” said Axel Plathe, director of the UNESCO office in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.
APECF, which boasts a “secretariat” in Beijing, did not respond to questions on funding sources or on ties to China’s government directed to its Hong Kong office.
Confusion over deal
Nepal’s ministries of culture and foreign affairs have been kept uninformed of developments related to the project, according to local press reports.
And the Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) denied last week that it had authorized a document, signed in Beijing by a China office representative on July 15, to support the foundation’s plans to develop the pilgrimage site.
“An intended Memorandum of Understanding between UNIDO and APECF was never approved by the responsible UNIDO approval bodies,” said UNIDO advocacy assistant Ravindra Wickremasinghe in a statement sent to the Kathmandu Post and reported on Aug. 19.
“Any reference to a UNIDO involvement in the Lumbini Special Development Zone is thus without any legal and substantive basis,” Wickremasinghe said.
UNIDO is the specialized U.N. agency promoting industrial development for poverty reduction, “inclusive” globalization, and environmental sustainability.
According to sources familiar with the plan, the memorandum had been signed by the local UNIDO representative without the necessary clearance from the agency’s headquarters, according to a report in India’s The Hindu newspaper.
On Friday, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav was quoted as saying in Kathmandu that following the UNIDO clarification, “the APECF chapter has been closed from today.” He did not elaborate.
Who will gain financially?
Mikel Dunham, a writer and blogger on Nepal’s politics, said that APECF’s plans are “still shrouded in a lot of mystery.”
Dunham noted that Maoist former Nepalese prime minister Prachanda and Prince Paras, a member of Nepal’s royal family, are on board as prominent backers of the project.
“Nobody’s talking about who really is going to gain financially from this,” Dunham said.
"Who is going to be making this money? Why is Prachanda a co-chairman? What is he getting out of this deal?"
Though some building of temples and roads in Lumbini has already taken place over the years, the site was still largely undeveloped as recently as 1989, said Dunham, who travels frequently to Nepal.
“In its disrepair, it had also retained a kind of purity,” he said.
“Traditionally, in pilgrimages, you go to places where enlightened beings have been so that your own spiritual practice will benefit.”
“How do you separate religious intentions from people who are there to make a quick buck?”
Reported by Richard Finney.