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Giant Chinese-built Buddha triggers popular backlash in Laos

From bad debt to bad karma: Beneath religious symbolism lies fear of economic, political dominance by China

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Replica of Mahayana-style Buddha statue that Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate Company wants to build in Vientiane. (Special Economic Zone Promo...

Replica of Mahayana-style Buddha statue that Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate Company wants to build in Vientiane. (Special Economic Zone Promo...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A giant 100-meter tall Buddha statue to be built in the middle of the Laotian capital of Vientiane has triggered anti-Chinese anger throughout the Southeast Asian country.

Laotian netizens have lambasted Chinese developer Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate for its designs for what will be, if completed, the tallest structure in the country, according to a Nikkei report.

"People disagree with this symbol of China and are expressing anger on Facebook," one observer told the Japanese media outlet under anonymity. "They are accusing the Chinese of stepping on Laotian Buddhism."

The dispute arises due to stylistic differences between Buddhism's two main sects — Mahayana and Theravada. The former is widely practiced in East Asian countries, while the latter is more commonly observed in Southeast Asia as well as Sri Lanka.

A photo of a replica of the statue making the rounds in the local press clearly shows it to be fashioned in the Mahayana style, per Nikkei. In Laos, Buddha is usually seen cross-legged, as opposed to standing as in the planned statue.

The location is also contentious — close to Pha That Luang, the gold-plated Buddhist stupa in the heart of the city.

"It would be unacceptable that a large statue was built in the That Muang Marsh SEZ to attract tourism not far from Pha That Luang stupa, a symbol of Lao sovereignty," said Adisorn Semyaem of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, suggesting the anxiety may be as much political as religious.

Concerns over eroding sovereignty are likely connected to Laos’ economic dependency and indebtedness to China. As Nikkei points out, huge infrastructure projects backed by Chinese loans have sunk the Southeast Asian country deeper into debt. The country, whose GDP is a mere US$20 billion (NT$556.8 billion), is saddled with an estimated US$12.6 billion in foreign debt, almost half of which it owes to China.

Given how deep the debt trap descends in Laos, Buddhist culture has become “the only thing left to be preserved as an indicator of their character and identity," according to Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a Bangkok-based Laos analyst.