An Interview with Dr. Minendra Rijal by Mikel Durham
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on March 7, 2012
Dr. Rijal is a member of Nepal’s recently created Greater Lumbini Development National Steering Committee, chaired by ex-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”. Dr. Rijal, a member of the Nepali Congress political party, is also a current member of the Constituent Assembly, ex-Minister of Culture and Chairman of Apex College. Mikel Durham interviewed Dr. Rijal focussing on Lumbini issue.
RIJAL: So far, we have not been able to spend as much time as is needed to move the Lumbini project forward. Prachanda is terribly busy with the politics of the country. In some respects, I am also quite busy — nothing compared to his busy schedule but –
DUNHAM: How many members are on the committee?
RIJAL: Right now we are a six-member committee. And then there is a provision to add another eleven members later on.
DUNHAM: Prachanda is Chair.
DUNHAM: What has the committee actually done so far?
It all started, however, when, earlier, I was the Minister of Culture. At that time, I established contact with Ban Ki-moon’s office and he extended an invitation. I went there. I presented my argument on Lumbini and he was very keen. He has long been interested in helping Lumbini and in realizing its potential. I knew that his mother was a devoted Buddhist and felt that her son, as Secretary General, should do something for Lumbini.
For his part, Ban Ki-moon also feels that it is his obligation on behalf of the larger Asian Buddhist community– he is the second Asian Secretary General – to do something for Lumbini.
That was one reason, last November, that we thought he could be of great help. And the visibility of his office was going to be very important to help Lumbini realize its potential.
We had a very nice conversation. He was the one who told us that Madam Bokova [Director-General of UNESCO] is also very keen to see that Lumbini is developed to it’s potential. She’s very interested in the preservation site.
We proposed a few things at that meeting.
1) To form, or rather revive the international committee.
DUNHAM: The international committee that was formed during U Thant’s tenure?
RIJAL: Yes, but we didn’t simply say “revival”. We said we needed more. Although the old international committee was chaired by the Nepal Permanent Representative to the UN, he could not put together what an international committee was expected to do for Lumbini’s development.
So we thought an international committee that has a strong commitment from the SG’s office, or the direct involvement of the SG, would probably be of greater use.
At that time, the initial idea was that the Secretary General and the Prime Minister of Nepal would co-chair the international committee. And then membership would be drawn from all sixteen-member states. Dignitaries could be current or former political office bearers. They could also be very prominent leaders of the Buddhist community. Or they could be people who had made some contribution or were known, at least in the region, for having made strong contributions towards world peace. And maybe, beyond the sixteen member states, a few other countries could be added. That was the original idea.
2) We also proposed that there be a national committee, chaired by the Minister of Culture. We would draw membership from within Nepal – largely from people who have a very strong commitment to Buddhism, spirituality and peace.
I want to emphasize this second point because, from our perspective, Buddhism brings many people together. Lumbini certainly should thrive on the interconnections of Buddhists around the world, on how they feel toward the birth site.
The people who are not Buddhists, but who feel that spirituality is very important, also have a connection to Lumbini. Buddha’s teachings have elements that can bring people of other faiths together.
DUNHAM: I’ve always contended that Buddhism can be embraced exculsively as a philosophy, if one so wishes.
RIJAL: Yes, there you are.
And that brings me to the third point:
3) Even for people without any religion, perhaps world peace is the platform that would bring them together. The historical Buddha, after whom Buddhism was established, is known as somebody who had a very strong spiritual message for peace. Religious or not religious, all the people could come together. These could be people from any walk of life, including politics – including politics, but not limited to politics.
That’s how we thought the national committee would be formed. We would draw membership from prominent civil servants, current or former.
4) A Secretariat should be formed, which would be the platform for UNDP, UNESCO, and other international institutions to work with the government of Nepal. That would be the real working body. The international committee would bring international visibility, network and support. The national committee would broadly work with the Secretariat to move in the direction that’s best from the national perspective. But the real movers would be the members of the Secretariat, which will have employees seconded by UNDP, UNESCO, UN and also by the government of Nepal. The concept was they will be paid reasonably competitive salaries from the international perspective. And they should be the ones, who could not just work within the country, but also who could go outside and do the necessary work.
DUNHAM: When you say, “go outside”, are you referring to international promotion?
RIJAL: Promotion was an idea. Getting support for the development of Lumbini was an idea. Developing projects was an idea. Developing more infrastructure was an idea.
But now I’d like to switch to another topic.
The concept of the development of Greater Lumbini was already there. “Greater Lumbini”, meaning not just the birthplace of Lord Buddha, but also places that are in Nepal and that are significantly related and tied to the life of Lord Buddha. There, we are thinking about Kapilvastu, Gotihawa, Tilaurakot, Ramgram, Devdah – so, there, we are thinking of a much larger area; developing some infrastructure in that area and tying these places together – structurally, infrastructurally, culturally, conceptually, area-wise, population-wise, economically—also from the tourism point of view.
DUNHAM: And archeologically?
RIJAL: Yes, and archeologically. We thought that that was important all along because without preserving things that need to be preserved, we actually would be ruining Greater Lumbini beyond repair.
But at that time, developing projects and preserving heritage was an important idea by bringing these places together in a network, in all senses of the term.
Another idea that was there, originally, was that the protected area would be five-by-five miles with a one-by-one core. So we were originally thinking about developing a 25-square-mile master plan. And that would have required a lot of acquisition. It would have been very difficult. We know how difficult is was for the government to acquire three square miles. 25 square miles is eight times that size.
Plus, if you have 25 square miles, then you’re talking not only about building monasteries but, schools and hospitals, etc. People would be living there. There would be villages. But that was the concept.
DUNHAM: So this is the plan you presented to Ban Ki-moon?
RIJAL: Yes. [At that time, Dr. Rijal was Minister of Culture.] And then, what I realized was that some of the ideas were independently developed by others, who had studied Lumbini and had prepared papers in the past.
One of them was Kwak [Professor Kwak, a South Korean architect], who did a UNDP commissioned study on Lumbini. He prepared three books on Lumbini. I had not gone through these books before I went to the UN. As I was developing these ideas someone said, “Why don’t you sit down with Prof. Kwak?” Kwak flew to Kathmandu. We sat down, and we realized that we were saying the same thing. And Kwak was also instrumental in establishing contact with Ban Ki moon.
As it happens, Kwak and Ban Ki-moon are childhood friends. So this helped make possible my meeting with Ban Ki-moon.
These I ideas I presented. But as soon as I came back, I was no longer Minister of Culture. A new government was formed and I tried to influence the following Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal by emphasizing that my plan was proposed by the Ministry of Culture of Nepal, not an individual named Minendra Rijal. I really wanted the P.M. Khanal to follow up on the plan. I wanted him to form the International Committee and the National Committee. I wanted his Minister of Culture to work with UNDP, UNESCO and form the Secretariat.
Things, however, did not move forward.
Kwak came to Nepal, talked to the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister liked the idea, but things did not move forward.
And then another government was formed. Baburam Bhattarai became the new Prime Minister.
And, for very different reasons, Prachanda was also getting involved with Lumbini.
DUNHAM: You’re talking about APECF: the Hong Kong-based three-billion-dollar offer. That offer proved to be deeply controversial. It still is controversial. What did you think about APECF?
RIJAL: I was very disappointed with the idea, and the reasons why APECF was coming to Lumbini. I was just watching it unfold from the sidelines and made some public comments. I said that what was important now was not building projects and doing physical constructions. I said what was really important was to first create the master plan.
And somehow people, who knew how I felt about Lumbini, were very supportive of my ideas. They established some contact with Prachanda and tried to convince him that preparing the master plan was more important.
Prachanda also somehow liked the idea. These people arranged a meeting between Prachanda and me. We sat down and I briefed him about my ideas and what I had tried to do in the past. I also spoke about why APECF could be good in the future but only if they were given a level playing field with the other development plans, once we had the master plan.
Prachanda liked the idea. And he very strongly liked the idea that the UN should be involved in this process. Then he spoke to Prime Minister Bhattarai, who, when he was in New York, talked to the Secretary General – talked about Lumbini – and from Ban Ki-moon, Bhattarai gathered that the SG was very keen to see that Lumbini got developed to its potential. The Prime Minister later told me that the SG very fondly remembered my meeting with him.
Bhattarai returned to Nepal quite encouraged about developing Lumbini.
But until then, Bhattarai also did not have this idea of a Greater Lumbini, or the idea of developing a master plan for Lumbini. But he did push for the general idea of developing Lumbini.
For many people, who talk about Lumbini, they are thinking about the three-square mile area – the core area for which the master plan was developed by Kenzo Tange.
So I sat down with the Prime Minister and Prachanda and we discussed forming a committee. That’s how the Greater Lumbini Development National Steering Committee was formed.
And then we decided to pursue the idea of having a meeting with Ban Ki-moon’s office.
DUNHAM: When was this?
RIJAL: October 2011. And then in November 2011, we had that meeting with the Secretary General in New York at the United Nations.
I brought into the network everybody who I had contacted in the past, and who had been instrumental and useful. Prachanda sat down with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The same level of commitment was there: Ban Ki-moon was very happy to see that the commitment on the Nepali side had gone up too. He was happy to hear that there was a new institution designed to steer or oversee the development of Lumbini. Ban Ki-moon was also happy to see that the former Prime Minister [Prachanda] was there.
But one thing had changed. The co-chairing concept had changed.
When I spoke with Ban Ki-moon, I guess he had not – until then – received too many requests for co-chairing. A variety of organizations had request that he become a co-chair and, after consulting with the UN legal cell, he was informed that it was probably not advisable.
The idea of him co-chairing any organizations, for that matter, has stopped.
But Ban Ki-moon very strongly reiterated his support. He said he was willing to do whatever was possible – within the mandate of the UN, of course, and within the limits and parameters in which the SG of the UN is expected to operate.
It certainly reminded us that a strong commitment and preparation from our side would be important.
One of the events we proposed was an international conference in Lumbini. And we thought it might be a good idea that Prachanda and the SG co-chair that event.
DUNHAM: That was slated for March 2012, right?
RIJAL: Yes. And the impression we got was that his office might not have any objection to his co-chairing the event; not co-chairing an organization but an event might be OK. Ban Ki-moon, himself, insisted that we should use, to the best possible advantage, his presence in Lumbini. The visibility of his office brings in – not just for the duration of his visit – but beyond that: international attention, getting pledges of support for Lumbini’s development. All of this would be very useful in the long term.
But after we returned to Nepal, we got caught up in so many other issues and what happened was that Ban Ki-moon’s office and the UN Nepal office realized that we had not made sufficient headway to organize an event in March. That might be – I’m stressing might be the reason –
DUNHAM: That Ban Ki-moon cancelled his visit.
RIJAL: Postponed, yes.
DUNHAM: And is he still planning to come to Lumbini in April?
RIJAL: It could be in April. But it is not definite.
What is definite is that he wants to come within in 2012. And his office is really keen to see that we get our act together and make the necessary preparations: establishing the international committee, establishing international contacts, being in a position to get commitments and support and pledges from international Buddhists communities and countries that would be members of the international committee. Their presence at the event, while Ban Ki-moon is here, would be very important.
There’s one more thing. It was an idea that I presented to Ban Ki-moon, which is still quite alive: a much bigger concept.
To me, the smaller Buddhist circuit that comprises the places within these three Nepali districts [Kapilvastu, Rupandehi, Nawalparasi] is one thing. A little larger Buddhist circuit would include places of importance of Buddha’s life that are located in India: Kushinighar, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya. An even larger circuit would include places in Sri Lanka and other countries in South Asia. An even larger circuit would include places in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
DUNHAM: And so the idea would be that Lumbini would be at the center of all these circuits—concentric circles, as it were, across Asia?
RIJAL: Yes. Ideally, that is how I would like to see it. But we know that, at the present time, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Kushinaghar are more likely places to become the center of these greater areas than Lumbini. A critical mass has to be developed in Greater Lumbini first so that this smaller circuit could be developed, so that it would become the nucleus of the larger Buddhist circuits. That is the main idea today.
For many people, Lumbini means tourism, lots of construction, potential to make a profit, a good business proposal. That’s not what it is for me.
First, for a year or two, the preparation for the master plan is far more important. Connectedness with the other concentric circles – that’s what’s important.
This is what I have tried to convince to Prachanda. And I get the impression that he is pretty much for the idea. And this is the direction that I would like to see the committee move toward. We will be able to advise, guide and direct the Lumbini Development Committee and the Ministry of Culture to move Lumbini in this direction.
DUNHAM: In my view, what would be truly inspirational right now is the emergence of a master plan that “thinks” far into the future.
RIJAL: That is exactly my interest! Nothing else! I should also say that Lumbini has a huge, huge, humongous economic potential. But, to me, that is secondary. My primary interest is preservation.
This is a World Heritage site, right? We are lucky to have that World Heritage site under our watch. And if we do not recognize the importance of preservation, we will probably screw Lumbini up.
DUNHAM: And the politicization of Lumbini hasn’t helped.
RIJAL: Yes, the political and negative publicity that we have been receiving!
Some people think that Prachanda is trying to mastermind an image of himself as a peacemaker. That might bother some, but to me, well there are three things: 1) The visibility that Prachanda brings to the committee; there is no other person who can match the visibility, which Prachanda brings to the committee. 2) Prachanda has a genuine interest to actively engage in Lumbini because that complements what he does not have today. If that could be his motivation for being involved with Lumbini, I would be very happy. 3) If involvement with Lumbini somehow helps Prachanda steer in the direction of peace and spirituality, this nation will be served well.
I sit down with Prachanda and negotiate peace as an adversary – I represent Nepali Congress in many meetings – but I think very strongly that that should not affect my relationship with Prachanda when we are talking about Lumbini.
DUNHAM: You’re saying that politics should not enter into the equation.
RIJAL: Yes. When the committee was formed, I very strongly told him that the way that Prachanda’s designation should be written was, “Former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda.” It cannot be “Chairman of the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist.” And even my name: It should be “Former Minister of Culture,” not “Nepali Congress guy.” This is how it should be.
I am a little upset that we have not been able to move the process ahead at the pace that we should have been able to do in the last four or five months. But that doesn’t bother me too much. It might take a little longer, but we have to be able to move in the right direction. If we do it faster and then screw it up, we will be sorry in the long run.
Now, coming back to the economic side. You might ask me, “Doesn’t the economic potential motivate me?” Yes, of course it does. The change of the livelihood of the local people, the potential for the employment that Lumbini’s development brings does motivate me.
In fact, I think that the economic potential is much higher in Lumbini than Karnali hydropower. Karnali has the potential for 11,000 megawatts of hydropower electricity. But the potential in Lumbini is much greater than 11, 000 megawatts of electricity.
But, having said that, regardless of that, this should not be the primary motivation for developing Lumbini. Economic benefits can only be second. If we preserve Lumbini as a World Heritage site, then the economic development is going to naturally follow. Tourism is going to flourish.
On the other hand, if we just do something, which is expedient today – from a tourism, economic, employment, and infrastructure development point of view – we might ruin Lumbini beyond repair.
DUNHAM: Given the formation of your new committee, where does this leave the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), which has already been in place for so many years?
RIJAL: Our steering committee is tied to LDT.
DUNHAM: You are not creating a parallel organization?
RIJAL: No, we are not. It is both a strength and weakness. Strength, because we are not creating a parallel structure, we are not creating competing jurisdictions. Weakness, because that sets the perimeters within which we can operate. But I’m happy with that.
DUNHAM: Have there been any new developments in regard to the APECF? Have they backed off entirely? It appeared to be a murky operation to begin with and now you suddenly don’t hear anything about it.
RIJAL: I agree with you, it was a fairly murky operation. I don’t know if APECF has put the proposal on hold – I don’t know what they are doing.
To me, it is not the time to do infrastructure development. It is time to do the master plan. If somebody tries to build infrastructure, I will be the first one to come out and create noise.
DUNHAM: Returning to the structure of your new committee and the named members: Are they all politically affiliated?
RIJAL: No, there is one member from the business community – a banker. There is the Vice-Chair of LDT. And there are four of us, all Constituent Assembly members, who are also members of the Maoist party, Nepali Congress, UML and the Madhesi parties respectively.
But there will be eleven additional members picked in the future. A good number of these will be from the Buddhist community.
DUNHAM: Buddhist leaders?
RIJAL: Yes, spiritual leaders and also Buddhist scholars. That will certainly address some the grievances you hear from the Buddhist community, regarding suitable representation.
No matter how committed I am for the development of Lumbini, people still say, “Minendra, he is a Hindu!” And I have to understand that. I’ve been in politics for quite some time, and if I don’s understand that, I am stupid. And I will not be able to serve the cause that, as a member of the steering committee, I should.
DUNHAM: You just mentioned that the extended membership in the new steering committee would include major Buddhist leaders. The obvious man for the job is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In terms of a Buddhist icon and in terms of a Buddhist who could bring international visibility to Lumbini, the Dalai Lama is the man. Obviously, that’s a problem, here, in Nepal. He hasn’t been allowed to visit Nepal for decades.
RIJAL: People who have a lot of faith in the Dalai Lama should also understand the political parameter, within which Nepal operates. We have, over the years, improvised ways and means, with which we deal with Tibetan refugees. There is a large Tibetan Buddhist community that lives in and around Dharamsala. If someone assumes that it is going to change overnight, it will not.
DUNHAM: Nevertheless, it’s a question that’s not going to go away.
RIJAL: True, but if our committee gets something going and establishes credibility and that is sincerely committed to seeing that Lumbini gets developed to its potential and is committed to Buddha and its teaching, then we will probably be able to deal with the issues surrounding the Dalai Lama. Political parameters probably will slowly change as we move along.
DUNHAM: Still, I think it’s safe to say that the Dalai Lama will never set foot in Lumbini.
RIJAL: I would not say that.
On the other hand, I would be stupid to say, “We will see him [the Dalai Lama] soon, within a year.”
But at the same time I would be even more stupid to assume that we would never see him in Lumbini. Because things are changing, not only in Nepal but also in China.
I’m not making a political statement here. But the leadership of China will find ways to deal with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which will be respectful of the Chinese people. Which would be respectful from the perspective of the international community, who cares so much about Buddhism, spirituality, peace and, above all human rights.