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 sparked outrage among monks and citizens who see it as cultural encroachment from their massive neighbor.
The opponents’ complaint about the proposed statue highlights stylistic differences between two major schools of Buddhism: the statue is a Mahayana-style Chinese Buddha standing in a long frock, rather than a Theravada-style Lao Buddha sitting in a meditative pose.
“If they build it in the Chinese style, it will elicit a lot of negative reactions from the public,” said a Vientiane resident who did not want to be identified. “Laos will lose its image and identity if a Chinese-style Buddha is installed. Because it is in Laos, the Buddha statue should be Lao.”
According to Lao and Chinese state-run media, China’s Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate Company intends to build the Buddha in the That Luang Marsh Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Vientiane to attract domestic and foreign tourists.
Lao state media first reported in November 2016 that company owner Wan Feng planned to invest US $80 million to build a water theme park, complete with a giant Buddha statue, as a tourist attraction at the SEZ. According to media reports, the real estate developer has had a 99-year lease on the 365-hectare SEZ since 2012.
According to Lao state media, the SEZ is intended to serve as a model for economic zone development in Laos and to attract foreign investment to the small landlocked country of approximately 7 million people. China is the largest foreign investor in Laos, with a total investment of US $16 billion and ambitious expansion plans.
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 when completed.
“The government should consider public opinion” before allowing the proposed Buddha to be built, another capital resident told RFA.
“They should build a Lao Buddha, or if they want to build it as a symbol of two countries’ cooperation, they can build two Buddha statues — one Chinese and one Lao — side by side,” he said.
“They can’t simply build the Chinese one. Laos’ image or face will deteriorate.”
“Personally, I don’t want to see a Chinese Buddha statue in the SEZ in the heart of the capital Vientiane,” a Lao Buddhist monk in Vientiane said.
Laotians from other parts of the country have also spoken out on the issue.
According to a resident of the province of Luang Prabang, the statue should be built in the authentic ancient Lao style.
“Lao identity must be protected,” he said. “It is inappropriate to construct a Chinese-style Buddha. I’m not sure why they want to build a Chinese Buddha.”
“Many monks in the higher levels of the Lao Buddhist community say that building a Buddha statue like this in the country is inappropriate,” a local said. “They should construct a Lao Buddha in a meditative pose.”
According to the Special Economic Zone Promotion and Management Office in Vientiane, when a national steering committee for the statue’s construction met on Aug. 31, Lao Deputy Prime Minister Kikeo Khaykhamphithoun stated that the project should promote Lao culture, history, tradition, religion, architecture, and business, including tourism, in the SEZ.
Following the meeting, the deputy prime minister and other meeting attendees visited the site where the Buddha will be built and examined a model of the proposed statue.
An official from Vientiane’s Information, Culture, and Tourism Department said he couldn’t comment on the project because no one from the department was present at the meeting.
Managers at the That Luang Marsh SEZ, according to an employee, were discussing the issue.
According to RFA, in November 2020, a Chinese company installed Chinese red lanterns and balloons on utility poles that the company assisted in the construction of in Vientiane, but it later removed them after many Lao residents complained.