Pathology of a postponed visit

Pathology of a postponed visit

In the flurry of commentary on the postponement of the planned visit to Lumbini by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, some pundits and politicians have given me both undue credit and blame. Under an editorial entitled “A few loud men”, the Kathmandu Post squarely put the blame on “a few individuals claiming to represent the sentiments of the broad section of the Nepali population (who) have been allowed to decide on the larger national agenda.” It also feared that “this event could set a poor precedent that regardless of the will of the government, the political parties, or a larger civil society, a small group of people would now feel emboldened to decide the national agenda.”

Several pro-Maoist newspapers, media outlets and Maoist leaders have vilified me as a gang-leader of this “small group”, calling all kinds of names: ‘elites’ ‘conservative intellectuals’ and even “anti-national elements”—in a throw-back to the Panchayat-era denunciation of dissidents.

Experienced diplomats and thoughtful analysts know that no single private citizen’s views would carry such weight as to change the planned official visit of the United Nations SG to a Member State. Such visits are carefully planned by seasoned professional diplomats. I am sure the Secretary-General’s advisers got independent feedback and advice from UN officials in Nepal, and through other diplomatic channels. They may also have received feedback from leaders of Buddhist countries.

As far as Nepalis are concerned, it should also be noted that pro-government and pro-Maoist civic leaders, columnists and politicians also have privileged access to UN and European diplomats in Kathmandu, many of whom have erred on the side of giving the benefit of doubt to the Maoists.

A friendly act

Was the postponement of the visit such a national disaster anyway? Talking to some journalists at his residence on 22 March 2012, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ himself said, “At a time when we should be engaged in completing the work of integration and constitution-writing, organising a conference with the participation of heads of state and government would have taken up 10-15 days. On a personal level, I would have been greatly pressured. From one perspective, therefore, I was relieved to receive the news from the United Nations of postponement of the visit. We can now concentrate on peace and constitution-writing.”

Indeed, it would have been in appropriate in mid-April 2012 to divert attention to organize a major international conference on Lumbini. But in his usual double-speak mode, Prachanda went on to denounce some “so-called intellectuals” as narrow-minded and irresponsible towards the country, and acting to “fulfil their self-interest” in preventing the visit.

If the Government of Nepal wanted Ban’s visit for the purpose of facilitating the peace process, they should have said so from the beginning and prepared the agenda accordingly. The government’s clumsy efforts to do damage control by recalibrating the purpose of Ban’s visit when the Lumbini conference became controversial, proved unconvincing in the eyes of the UN Secretariat.

The Secretary-General’s advisors did not want him to be associated with a poorly-timed and -prepared conference. The postponement was a friendly act, not an insult to Nepal, and spared us a potentially embarrassing fiasco.

The UN’s support for Lumbini’s development is very important, and we all want it. But Lumbini has been there for 2500-plus years, and will be there forever. A few months’ postponement is not a tragedy for Nepal. If we want development of the Lord Buddha’s birthplace, the first thing is not to drag it into political controversy.

The birthplace

Some have made the rather naïve point that somehow Ban attending a conference in Lumbini would have easily and decisively dispelled any confusion about Buddha’s birthplace being in Nepal. But let us remember that Ban already visited Lumbini in November 2008, and four other Secretaries-General of the UN have visited Lumbini before.

In my articles, I did not lobby for cancellation of Ban’s visit but merely pointed out why the timing was inappropriate. I also firmly believe that it would have been inappropriate for Ban Ki-moon to co-chair an international conference at Buddha’s birthplace with a leader who has not fully embraced Buddha’s teachings of peace and non-violence. I even made some constructive suggestions for the Maoist party to overcome their burden:

a) formally renounce the use of violence in politics; b) officially confirm that the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission will fully comply with the norms of UN Conventions to which Nepal is a party, and that there will be no blanket general amnesty for heinous criminal acts, war crimes and crimes against humanity; and c) complete the long-delayed integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants culminating in the closure of all remaining cantonments prior to the SG’s visit to Nepal.

Apparently, these conditions are considered unreasonable, ‘anti-national’, ‘conservative’ and ‘elitist’ by some Maoist apologists and even some independent ‘nationalist’ thinkers. But it is my humble sense that the vast majority of Nepalis and most diplomats agree with this position. If these considerations contributed to postponement of Ban Ki-moon’s visit, I feel proud that I have done service to my nation and honoured the sentiments of millions of Buddhists around the world.

Published in Kathmandu Post