Lharkyal Lama’s Lumbini, Inc

Private developers with political patronage still trying to turn the Buddha’s birthplace into Disneyland

In what seems to be a replay of an initiative 13 years ago by the shadowy Asia Pacific Cooperation and Exchange Foundation (APECF) to invest billions in the ‘development’ of Lumbini, a new scandal has erupted about a lease of the nearby Buddhist shrine of Ramgram to a private entity.

The Hong Kong-based APECF purportedly signed an MoU with a United Nations office in Beijing in June 2011 for the Lumbini Buddist Cultural Special Zone project with the aim of turning it into an international tourist destination having the world’s tallest Buddha statue.

The new Ramgram proposal, meanwhile, was pushed by a shady former lawmaker named Lharkyal Lama, who heads the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) and involved leasing 82 hectares of the sacred site for 99 years to the Singapore-based Moksha Foundation to build hotels and other structures.

Interestingly, both projects involve Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The APECF was chaired by Dahal after he resigned as prime minister in 2009 during his first tenure. And the local counterpart of the Moksha Foundation is Promised Land, owned by the son of Dahal’s landlord in Kathmandu.

The vice-chair of APECF Xiao Wunan visited Kathmandu in June last year and met Dahal after which Dahal is said to have offered to support the foundation’s ‘core focus’ of Buddhist culture.

The APECF project has been in limbo ever since then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon cancelled a visit to Lumbini to endorse it after geopolitical pressure and the controversy in Nepal, reported by this paper at the time.

Then, last week the LDT cancelled the MoU with Moksha Foundation and Promised Land after a directive from the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which also ordered the Commission on the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) to probe the deal.

Prime Minister Dahal appointed Lharkyal Lama to head LDT in August 2023 despite knowledge about his nefarious past. Proximity to powerful leaders across the political spectrum has allowed Lama to keep being reincarnated despite allegations ranging from corruption to sedition.

Lharkyal Lama NT
Lumbini Development Trust vice chair Lharkyal Lama.

“With Gautam Buddha and Maya Devi as my witnesses, I will promise to never denigrate this holy place and to uphold the dignity of Lumbini,” Lama declared after his appointment last year.

The story about Ramgram, 35km east of Lumbini, was broken in January by a Kantipur investigation which revealed that Promised Land was owned by Nikesh Adhikari, the son of Sharada Adhikari, Prime Minister Dahal’s landlord.

Tourism and Culture Minister Sudan Kirati, who chaired LDT before Lama’s appointment, had previously also attempted to hand over the same land to Moksha Foundation and Promised Land but the deal was blocked by other branches of government, including the Department of Archaeology. Lama tried to bulldoze the agreement despite the objections.

One out of the eight relics of Gautam Buddha that were distributed among his disciples was sent to the ancient kingdom of Koliya, where present-day Ramgram stupa is located. Experts have long pushed to archaeologically substantiate the site’s history and include it in the World Heritage list.

“What they tried to do with Ramgram is heartbreaking,” says Bhairawa-based cultural expert Geetu Giri. “It seems that the Prime Minister has been using Lama and the Lumbini Development Trust as proxies to monetise Lumbini in collusion with cronies.”

Lharkyal Lama was hugely controversial even before being appointed to the LDT. Media investigations showed that his citizenship paper states that he was born in Helambu on 28 November 1964, and came to Kathmandu to study Buddhism. Papers made public by Lama in 2016 state that he obtained a Khenpo degree from the Ngagyur Nyingma Institute in Karnataka in 2000, but the institute’s website shows only one person graduated that year and it was not Lharkyal Lama.

During the newly post-Panchayat era, Lama was close to powerful Nepali Congress (NC) leader Khum Bahadur Khadka, who himself would go on to be convicted of several counts of corruption in August 2012.

In 2001, during his second tenure as Prime Minister, the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba appointed Lama chair of the Monastery Management and Development Committee.

Ramgram stupa NT

Lama then pivoted to the UML in 2007, and was close to Ishwar Pokharel and Amrit Bohara who lined up a proportional representation seat for him in the 2008 Constituent Assembly election. He was appointed state minister for finance by Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal in 2011 but had to resign just two weeks into office after it was revealed that he possessed two Nepali citizenships, an Indian passport, and a Tibetan refugee ID card.

A Home Ministry investigation further revealed his close ties to an emissary of the Dalai Lama and leader of the Free Tibet campaign. The investigation was never completed due to ‘non-cooperation by government agencies’.

Lama then left the UML and joined the Maoist party in 2014 and was appointed lawmaker in 2015 despite the Election Commission's objections. Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal wrote four letters to the Commission on Lama’s behalf. Even Maoist leaders objected to his appointment, but Dahal went ahead with it.

Lama was once again investigated by the CIAA in 2016 during his second stint in Parliament after illegal wealth and bullets were discovered inside his bank locker. He spent nine days in custody and was released on a mere Rs60,000 bail. The CIAA filed a case in the Special Court, but Lama was acquitted.

Lama’s appointment to the LDT was also heavily criticised from within the Maoist party, but Dahal overruled objections. The Promised Land deal that Lama pushed therefore could have the backing of the highest office in the land.

Basanta Bidari, who has worked as an archaeologist at the LDT for 28 years, says that Lama’s tenure has been disappointing but he is not surprised. He says, “There is no need for me to comment on appointments by Dahal and Kirati. We never had any expectations from Lama.”

The LDT was established in 1985 to develop and promote the birthplace of the Buddha, and was under the tutelage of the royal palace. But even then there were allegations of misappropriation of funds and lack of progress in developing the nativity site.

Four decades on and with multiple changes in government, political interference in Lumbini’s development continues. Meanwhile, the contrast between the heritage site and the surrounding Greater Lumbini region is starker than ever.

Says Bhairawa-based observer Ram Bikas Chaudhary: “There are two Lumbinis here, separated by a wall. Inside it is beautiful, prosperous, and peaceful, while the outside is ugly, poor and chaotic.”

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