Pomp and circus on full display as state splurges on NGO conference

- ANIL GIRI, Kathmandu
Finance Ministry officials say government entities asked for Rs320 million for the event

Nov 30, 2018-The government has deployed several state entities and resources—on par with regional summits like SAARC and BIMSTEC—for the Asia Pacific Summit, an event sponsored by a controversial South Korea-based non-government organisation.

Nearly 1,500 foreign guests, including Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor of Myanmar, arrived in Kathmandu on Thursday to take part in the four-day conference organised by the Universal Peace Federation.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Department

of Roads had demanded a total of Rs320 million from the Ministry of Finance

last month to make preparations for the summit.

But officials at the Finance Ministry rejected to release the full amount—it denied any funds to the Foreign Ministry and the Department of Roads, and handed over Rs20 million to the Home Ministry to provide lunches for the police personnel deployed across the Capital.

Finance Ministry officials told the Post that the amount sought by the three official bodies was almost double the total amount spent during the BIMSTEC Summit, except for the programme hosted by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli at Hotel Soaltee for the visiting delegates. The government had spent Rs170 in deploying resources during the fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in August.

Over 3,500 security personnel from Nepal Army, Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and National Intelligence Department have been deployed for the security of the visiting delegates. After facing an acute shortage of vehicles, the Nepal Police headquarters called back dozens of luxury vehicles from all seven provinces this week.

In an interview with the Post, a representative of the Universal Peace Federation, who only spoke on condition of anonymity, said the organisation was spending over Rs200 million to host the conference.

Multiple Foreign Ministry officials told the Post that the government was involved in the conference from the very beginning, nearly three months ago, when representatives of the federation approached the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry, Nepali embassies in South and East Asia, and national security agencies.

One official said that Rajan Bhattarai, who was appointed foreign relations adviser to Oli earlier this month, and head of the federation’s Nepal chapter Ek Nath Dhakal, travelled to a number of countries together to meet with and invite foreign delegates on the behalf of the prime minister.

The South Korean organisation has been embroiled in controversies for promoting Christianity in Nepal. Several Nepali leaders and members of parliament have visited South Korea on its invitation in the past.   

But the relationship between the Universal Peace Federation and the Nepali government goes back even farther. In 2016, members of the federation, including a representative from the South Korean capital Seoul, and Dhakal met with President Bidya Devi Bhandari and appointed her the organisation’s “ambassador of peace.”

Last week, the Christian organisation’s officials had announced Nepal government as the co-host of the conference. But after widespread criticism, including from the main opposition Nepali Congress, the organisers backtracked, changing their statement on the federation’s website, calling Nepal government a “supporter” that was providing logistical support and that the entire expenses were being footed by the federation.

Earlier this week, former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal held a press conference in Kathmandu and defended the organisation’s statement and said the government was simply supporting the conference and would be attended by leaders from across all religions.

However, the government has been identified as a “co-host” in the official press passes for the media, security passes, as well as the passes for attendees. Nepal, also a senior leader in the ruling party, is headlining the conference.

During a press meet on Thursday, Information and Communication Minister Gokul Prasad Banskota defended the government’s decision to support the conference.

“We are not the co-hosts. It was the government’s duty to lend support to such big function,” he said. “It’s a matter of pride and international relations as well.”

Banskota said the government was spending Rs5.5 million for the conference, contrary to what Finance Ministry officials told the Post. When the Post called officials at the Finance Ministry to re-confirm, they said the total amount disbursed to the government for the conference was Rs20 million.

The pomp and circus were on full display on Thursday, as thousands of security personnel were deployed across major streets in the city, often blocking traffic to allow the convoys of vehicles carrying dignitaries to pass without disruption.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters in Kathmandu Valley faced hardship after the traffic police imposed an odd-even license plate driving provision—much like what it did during the 18th SAARC Summit in 2014 and August’s BIMSTEC meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwar Pokhrel was on standby at the Tribhuvan International Airport to receive Hun Sen and Suu Kyi, both of whom were accorded the state honour and VVIP facilities. According to a report in Pakistani daily The News, Prime Minister Oli exclusively invited former Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to attend the conference.

In a statement released by Gilani’s spokesperson on Wednesday, Oli sent Ek Nath Dhakal, head of the Christian foundation’s Nepal chapter, and Sewa Lamsal, the Nepali ambassador to Pakistan, to invite Gilani.

On Sunday, Parliament Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara is scheduled to host a dinner for all the visiting dignitaries—and will be paying from its own budget.

The government’s outright display of support for the conference was widely criticised, including by former diplomats and senior government officials.

“Who is running this government?” Dinesh Bhattarai, the former ambassador and adviser to two former prime ministers, told the Post. “Is the government confused about what kind of function it should be involved in and what kind it shouldn’t?”

Others went online to criticise the government’s move. “What message does the government want to send the United Nations Human Rights Council by welcoming the Cambodian prime minister who conducted a pseudo-election where his party won all 100 percent seats, and Aung San Suu Kyi who has been criticised for the mass massacre of the Rohingya?”

Nepal is a member of the UN human rights council.

Published: 30-11-2018 07:04

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