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Nepal blocks Tibetan lama's cremation over China fears

Is China's grip on its southern neighbor responsible for a move that's angered thousands?

<p>Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro, one of Tibetan Buddhism's higest lamas (Picture: WikiCommons)</p>

Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro, one of Tibetan Buddhism's higest lamas (Picture: WikiCommons)

  • Pragati Shahi, Kathmandu
  • Nepal
  • July 16, 2014
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Nepal’s refusal to allow the remains of one of the highest lamas in Tibetan Buddhism to be cremated in Kathmandu has angered his disciples and is being seen as yet another example of the government kowtowing to China, its powerful neighbour to the north.

The Nepalese embassy in New Delhi last month granted permission for the remains of the 14th Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro to be flown back to Kathmandu on July 13 from Kalimpong in West Bengal.

His remains had been sent there from Germany, where he died on June 11 of cardiac arrest. But the Nepalese government reneged on the pledge, claiming it had discovered that the Shamarpa had been carrying a Bhutanese passport and would have thereby flouted a law banning the bodies of foreigners being flown to Nepal for cremation.

Some 40,000 followers had been expected to show up at the cremation at the Shar Minub Monastery on the northern fringes of the Kathmandu Valley. Monastery officials had already sought permission from local authorities, and the ceremony was considered a good opportunity for Nepal, given the site’s potential to become a pilgrimage destination.

But after learning that tens of thousands of followers would try to take part in the funeral procession, Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting and subsequently decided to revoke the permission to allow the Sharmapa’s cremation to take place. 

Gopal Dahit, a lawmaker from the Tharuhat Tarai party and a Buddhist scholar who was facilitating the meeting, said the government's primary concern was the possible entry of tens of thousands of followers for the cremation ceremony.

“Security was the major concern from the Nepal government," he said. "And to some extent, we have been able to make them understand that it is purely a religious ritual and there is no need to feel threatened from any unwanted activities from the followers," he said.

Milan Ratna Shakya, head of the Centre for Buddhism Studies at Tribhuwan University in Nepal, said the country had made a mistake by canceling the ceremony.

“Nepal is losing a big opportunity to get recognised as a holy place for Buddhism and its followers at the global level. Nepal takes pride in being the country where the Buddha was born, but denying the wish of a Rinpoche [high Tibetan lama] has deeply hurt the sentiments of thousands of devoted Buddhists in the country.”

But other forces may be at work. Nepal is home to more than 20,000 Tibetans, many of whom fled persecution by Beijing following the exile of the Dalai Lama in 1959. Their presence there has put the Nepalese government under intense pressure from China to clamp down on any activities by Tibetans deemed to be anti-Chinese.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that Nepal has imposed tighter restrictions on Tibetans living in the country as a result of the outside pressure it faces. The report, Under China’s Shadow: Mistreatment of Tibetans in Nepal, further stated that Tibetans are now facing a de facto ban on political protests, sharp restrictions on public activities promoting Tibetan culture and religion, and routine abuses by Nepalese security forces. 

Members of the Tibetan refugee community in Kathmandu say the Nepalese government rejected their repeated pleas to release the bodies of two monks who self-immolated in separate incidents last year. Instead of undergoing proper Buddhist cremation rituals, Karma Ngedon Gyatso and Drupechen Tsering were secretly cremated and denied proper rituals.

Now a similar dispute has emerged over the remains of the Shamarpa. Sonam Gurung, a Tibetan refugee from Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, said the decision to prevent his cremation was a violation of the rights of Buddhist followers.

“It is against the cultural and personal rights of a person and a community, as performing funeral rites of any dead person is an important ritual for any religion,” he said.

The Shar Minub Monastery is situated a few kilometers outside the Kathmandu Valley.

Devotees like Sonam say they feel it shouldn’t be a big deal for Nepal to allow Shamarpa’s cremation, given he was a regular visitor to the country and actively contributed to its social and economic improvement by supporting charitable and social organizations. He also initiated the establishment of Shar Minub Monastery in 2007, a Buddhist institution of research, higher studies and spiritual retreat that can accommodate more than a thousand students.

The dispute has even reached the upper levels of government. On July 15, five parliamentarians held meetings with high-level government delegates, including President Ram Baran Yadav and Home Minister Bamdev Gautam. They urged them to reconsider the ban on Shamarpa’s cremation.

But with powerful forces now bearing down on the Nepalese government, the freedom to practice ethnic and religious rites in the country is increasingly in peril.

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