BANGKOK – With its economic might weakening in impoverished Laos, China has hit a problem on the religious front, sparking anti-Chinese anger over a gigantic Buddha statue that a Shanghai company plans to build in Vientiane .
Social media posts drew criticism against Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate Co.’s plan to build an imposing 100-meter-high Buddha statue as a tourist attraction in a special economic zone in Vientiane, the Laotian capital on the riverside. of the Mekong River. If the company goes ahead, the structure will be the tallest in Vientiane.
“People disagree with this symbol of China and express their anger on Facebook,” a Laotian political observer told Nikkei Asia on condition of anonymity. “They accuse the Chinese of treading on Laotian Buddhism.”
Laos have taken offense at the plans because the Buddha statue will be built in the Mahayana style in the sprawling $ 5 billion That Luang Marsh Special Economic Zone, funded by the Chinese property developer.
A photo of the replica of the statue that circulated in local media showed that it was designed in the style of the Mahayana. Mahayana is one of the three main schools of Buddhism and has followers in China, Japan and South Korea.
Laos, on the other hand, follow the Theravada school, as do Buddhists in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. In Laos, the statues tend to be of Buddha sitting cross-legged, unlike that provided by the Chinese developer.
The height of the Chinese statue will make it one of the tallest structures in Vientiane, a city made up largely of low-rise buildings housing nearly a million citizens. Its location is close to Pha That Luang, the gold-plated Buddhist stupa in the center of town.
“It would be unacceptable for a large statue to be built in the That Muang Swamp SEZ to attract tourism not far from the Pha That Luang stupa, symbol of the sovereignty of Laos,” said Adisorn Semyaem, director of the Mekong Studies Center in Bangkok. Chulalongkorn University.
“Laos has a nationalism [trait] no different from Cambodia or Thailand which is evident in the style of the Buddha statues – the construction of statues to be encased in temples requires the Lao style, also known as the Lan Xang style, [is followed],” he said.
Last November, social media in Laos came to life with posts of anger at an attempt by a Chinese company to hang Chinese red lanterns on utility poles it had built all over Vientiane. The company was forced to remove them later, according to media reports.
“Although it is not obvious at first glance, Laos are very proud of their culture,” said Norihiko Yamada, a Japanese scholar who has worked in several government ministries in Laos. great importance on ‘Lao-ness’ and don’t like anything that goes against it. “
This anti-Chinese sentiment also spread to rural communities who complained about the encroachment on their land which had been taken over by Chinese companies to establish banana plantations.
“Some social media users have directly criticized Chinese companies,” said a Vientiane resident, who requested anonymity. “Few people even criticize the government for letting the Chinese get away, but do so using fake social media accounts.”
Laos appear to have found a political voice in an otherwise repressive environment, where the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has crushed all traces of opposition to its grip on power.
The discontent over the Buddha statue comes at a delicate time for the holiday, which began to celebrate the launch of the Lao-Chinese high-speed railroad in early December. The $ 6 billion, 414 km track crossing Laos is part of the line that China has built as part of the Beijing Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing hopes that eventually the line, which begins in southern China, will be extended to Singapore via Thailand and Malaysia.
This historic project, built with Chinese loans, has seen Laos sink deeper into a sea of debt. Reports earlier this year revealed that Laos’ economy, worth $ 20 billion, carries an estimated external debt of $ 12.6 billion. Of this amount, China accounts for nearly half of the loans, or some $ 5.9 billion.
China is funding a wave of infrastructure construction in Laos, ranging from large hydropower projects and special economic zones to the country’s first high-speed train.
Unsurprisingly, as China throws its economic web over Laos, locals cling to their Buddhist culture as an identity. “It’s the only thing left to preserve as an indicator of their character and identity,” said Supalak Ganjanakhundee, Bangkok-based Southeast Asia and Laos analyst. “It has become a bargaining chip for the people.”