A real estate company’s plan to build a 100-meter-tall Buddha statue in a Chinese special economic zone in the Lao capital has prompted opposition from monks and citizens who see it as cultural encroachment from their giant neighbor.
The opponents’ complaint about the proposed statue highlights stylistic differences between two major schools of Buddhism: The statue to be erected is a Mahayana-style, Chinese Buddha wearing a long frock and standing, rather than a Theravada-style Lao Buddha sitting in a meditative pose.
“If they built it in the Chinese style, it will draw a lot of negative reactions from the public,” said a resident of the capital Vientiane, who declined to give his name. “With a Chinese-style Buddha, Laos will lose its image and its identity. The Buddha statue should be Lao because it’s in Laos.”
China's Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate Company plans to build the Buddha in the That Luang Marsh Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Vientiane to attract domestic and foreign tourists, according to Lao and Chinese state-run media.
Lao state media first reported in November 2016 that company owner Wan Feng planned to invest U.S. $80 million to build a water theme park, including a giant Buddha statue, at the SEZ as a tourist attraction. The real estate developer has had a 99-year lease on the 365-hectare SEZ since 2012, the media reports said.
The SEZ is meant to be a model for economic zone development in Laos and to attract foreign investment to the small landlocked country of roughly 7 million people, according to Lao state media. China is the largest foreign investor in Laos, with a stock of U.S. $16 billion in investments and ambitious plans to expand.
When completed, the SEZ will include apartment buildings, offices, public parks and green spaces, a lake, a hospital, an education center, restaurants, a sporting complex, a shopping mall, hotels, a temple, and banks.
“The government should take public opinion into consideration” before allowing the building of the proposed Buddha, another capital resident told RFA.
“They should build a Lao Buddha, or if they want to build it as a symbol of the cooperation between two countries, then they can build two Buddha statues — a Chinese one and a Lao one side by side,” he said.
“They can’t just build only the Chinese one. Laos will lose its image or face.”
A Lao Buddhist monk in Vientiane said, “Personally, I don’t want to see a Chinese Buddha statue in the SEZ in the heart of the capital Vientiane.”
Laotians in other areas of the country also have weighed in on the issue.
A resident of Luang Prabang province said the statue should be built in the authentic ancient Lao style.
“Lao identity should be preserved,” he said. “It’s not appropriate to build a Chinese-style Buddha. I don’t understand why they want to build a Chinese Buddha.”
“Many monks in the higher levels of the Lao Buddhist community say that it’s not appropriate to build a Buddha statue like this in the country,” the local said. “They should build a Lao Buddha who is sitting in a meditative pose.”
When a national steering committee for the statue’s construction met on Aug. 31, Lao Deputy Prime Minister Kikeo Khaykhamphithoun said the project should promote Lao culture, history, tradition, religion, architecture, and business, including tourism in the SEZ, according to the Special Economic Zone Promotion and Management Office in Vientiane.
After the meeting, the deputy prime minister and other meeting participants visited the location where the Buddha will be built and looked at a model of the planned statue.
An official at Vientiane’s Information, Culture and Tourism Department said that he could not comment on the project because no one there attended the meeting
An employee at the That Luang Marsh SEZ said that managers there were discussing the issue.
In November 2020, RFA reported that a Chinese company installed Chinese red lanterns and balloons on utility poles that the company helped build in Vientiane, but it later took them down after many Lao residents complained.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.