"Buddhaland" - Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

The struggle for power in Lumbini, Nepal as a Chinese group pushes a "mega project" to draw Buddhist tourists from around the world.

Lumbini, the Mecca of every Buddhist
Lumbini, the Mecca of every Buddhist
Ilaria Maria Sala

LUMBINI- From the characters alone, it's clear that this is not your typical story. There is the leader of a bloody Maoist insurgency, the Chinese director of an obscure foundation who may be a friend of the President of China, the Secretary General of the United Nations and his mother, devout Buddhists in a predominantly Hindu country and the intelligentsia of Kathmandu.

The plot features a game that resembles modern tales of espionage on the slopes of the Himalayas. The setting for all of this is Lumbini, in the plains of Terai, just north of the Indian border, a fertile yet unforgiving land where the summer sun pushes temperatures above 50°C.

It's here that Siddharta Gautama Buddha was born between the 5th and 6th centuries before Christ; as proof there are some stones and a column erected by King Ashoka (304-232 B.C.). A tree was there instead of a manger: Queen Maya was in Lumbini when she went into labor and gave birth while holding onto a sal branch near the stream.

Over the years, the traces were lost, and only in the 19th century was it rediscovered by colonial explorers: Soon after came the droves of pilgrims. Now, a new urgency is gripping the fate of Lumbini, with a Buddha-related project backed by a Chinese group and the Nepalese Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda, the Invincible), but fiercely opposed by the local Buddhists and anti-Maoists.

"For Nepal, it could be a goldmine!" insists Kanak Dixit, writer and political analyst.

But who is this head of the Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation (APECF), which wants to invest $5 million into Lumbini? The answer isn't easy: Xiao Wunan, former economist and banker, who has become a Buddhist and a "promoter of peace in the world."

A Texan architecht and UN chief

His proposal is for "Buddhaland," along with Vertical Theme Park and Texan-born architect Eric Kuhne, famous for designing the biggest shopping mall in Europe. In some circles, Xiao boasts that he's old friends with newly anointed Chinese leader Xi Jinping; elsewhere he shows up humbly in a white Buddhist scarf. It is also unclear whether the Chinese government is supporting the project; but what is obvious to anyone in Nepal is how much China wants to influence this politically fragile nation, which has given refuge to thousands of Tibetan refugees opposed by Beijing.

Vice President of the investment company is the Maoist and atheist, Prachanda, who as the former Prime Minister of Nepal, had green-lighted Xiao's theme park. Rajan Bhattarai, President of the Nepalese Institute for Political Studies, is skeptical of the deal. "All of this should be under UNESCO, not within the private sector. Lumbini is a World Heritage Site," he said. "And Prachanda is unreliable."

Bhattarai notes that Prachanda also signed a rival deal with Kwaak Young Hoon to develop Lumbini. As for Kwaak, a South Korean professor, he too has friends in high places: Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN and devout Buddhist. According to Bhatterai, he'd promised to his mother "to promote Buddhism in every way and create a city of peace in Lumbini."

Dixit is helping to lead the efforts to block the project. "Pushpa Kamal Dahal, with his hands bloodied from hundreds of deaths from the insurrection, wants to wash his hands with Lumbini, giving himself the respectability of those who can bring investment to Nepal!" thunders Dixit. "Because of this, we blocked the visit of Ban Ki Moon to Lumbini, which would have given it legitimacy."

In the meantime, in the sunny plains of Terai, the archeological site is visited by pilgrims in prayer and Indian students on trips. Subash Sharma, manager of the Hotel Hokke, shows on a plan the works that are in construction in the internal garden of peace surrounding the holy stones and says that "there's a new temple being built by the Chinese diaspora, Korea is establishing its own and China is expanding theirs."

Along the stream in the garden, Gu, a devout Chinese man holding prayer beads, coordinates the construction of a stage for an "enormous spectacle" with 2,000 singers and dancers who will come from China to do a Buddhist performance.

In the Chinese temple, a monk explains that Beijing has invested in a hotel, a second temple, a place for retreat, Chinese restaurants and different shops- all already under construction. Xiao's project? He doesn't know, but confirms that China is financing many projects, among them "the expansion of the airport, to become more international."

Meanwhile, India remains quiet, always suspicious of Chinese intentions, especially about something so close to its border. Still, some Indians have also announced an enormous spectacle of their own, with thousands of actors, singers and dancers, with a Buddhist theme of course.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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