In Laos, giant Chinese Buddha causes discord

Laotians do not want a giant Chinese Buddha: the Chinese real estate group Wanfeng Real Estate, of Shanghai, which since 2012 has been building a 3.65 square kilometer special economic zone in Vientiane, in the That Luang swamp region, in the east of the Laotian capital, is under fire from critics. In question, the project to erect a giant statue of Buddha, intended to become the central attraction of an aquatic theme park for tourists – mainly Chinese.

The project is not new. But its implementation seems imminent, since the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Kikeo Khaykhamphithoun, visited the promoter’s premises at the end of August to learn about it. That the communist leader – Laos has been led since 1975 by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party – welcomed, according to the official Laotian press, that this “Gigantic representation of Buddha can give an impetus to Buddhism in the era of globalization, while encouraging the economic development of the SEZ”, still happening. But that he was introduced a replica of the future statue, in the form of a standing Buddha, in the typical style of the Mahayana school known as the “great vehicle”, the majority in China and North-East Asia, causes a shock: in Laos, where predominates, as in Thailand and in Burma, the Theravada school known as the “small vehicle”, the Awakened one – the meaning of “Buddha” in Sanskrit – is most often represented in a sitting position of meditation.

Read also Buddhism: the three great schools

Critics immediately rocketed on social networks. “They should build a Laotian Buddha, or if they want to build it as a symbol of cooperation between the two countries, then they build two Buddha statues – one Chinese and one Laotian side by side., a Vientiane resident told Radio Free Asia’s Laotian service. If they are content to build only that of China, Laos will lose face ».

“Symbol of sovereignty”

For Adisorn Semyaem, director of the Mekong Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, quoted by Nikkei Asia magazine, “It would be unacceptable for Laotians for a large statue to be built in the That Luang Swamp Special Economic Zone to attract tourism, not far from the Pha That Luang stupa, the symbol of Laotian sovereignty.”

In reality, the distinction between the two schools of Buddhism is far from being so clear: there are many statues of seated Buddhas in China. And at least one dispatch from the Laotian press agency quoted, in August 2020, that is to say a year earlier, a Chinese official evoking a “Statue in a seated position” of a hundred meters for the Chinese economic zone. The question, according to connoisseurs, has more to do with Laotian nationalism, faced with a China which is multiplying infrastructure projects in this small country of 7.5 million inhabitants with which it shares a border.

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In Laos, giant Chinese Buddha causes discord