A Vietnamese bank executive managed to get his hands on a Buddhist statue believed to be about 500 years old from a Lao Buddhist temple in the capital Vientiane—but only for five hours.
It all started last year when Ha Bac Tran, chairman and general director of the Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam (BIDV) headquartered in Hanoi, visited Ongtue Wat in Mixay village near the Mekong River in the capital’s Chanthaburi district. He was accompanied by a deputy minister from Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense.
BIDV, which provides banking products and services to individuals, corporate customers and financial institutions in Vietnam, also has business interests in Laos where it owns a joint venture—Laos-Viet Bank (LVB)—with its partner Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur Lao, according to the Vientiane Times. LVB is one of the large-scale commercial banks operating in Laos.
The two banks have given millions of U.S. dollars to Laos for social welfare activities, such as health care, education and poverty reduction. Last October, they gave U.S. $300,000 to the Lao National Assembly, or parliament to build clean water tankers and provide medical equipment to ethnic minorities in Saysomboun province near Vientiane, according to local reports.
It was during this initial visit to Ongtue Wat, which houses one of the country’s largest bronze Buddhas, that Tran is believed to have expressed an interest in acquiring a particular 500-year-old Buddha statue, according to Sayadej Vongsopha, a monk who teaches at Sangha College in Vientiane, which plays a vital role in Buddhist education in the country.
After Tran returned to Vietnam, he had his bank send an official letter to the temple’s abbot, requesting the statue.
The abbot agreed to give it to him, and Sayadej, who is also personal secretary to the president of the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, notified the religious affairs department at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism as well as the high-ranking abbot of Wat Sisakhet, Vientiane’s oldest surviving monastery, about the deal.
The ministry’s religious affairs department referred the matter to the heritage department, which investigated the statue and found that it had been registered for national heritage status, and therefore, should not be taken out of the country.
Although Tran insisted that he should have the statue, the heritage department disagreed, but indicated that it was willing to offer an unregistered statue or make a new one for him, Sayadej told RFA’s Lao Service.
When the Lao Buddhist Lent period rolled around last July, Tran made a religious pilgrimage to Ongtue Wat and donated U.S. $10,000 to the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization.
Buddhist Lent Day, or Wan Khao Phansa, marks the start of a retreat period where monks must stay in a particular temple for three lunar months and refrain from eating meat, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.
The monks at Ongtue Wat saw Tran’s donation as a sign of not-so-subtle pressure to turn over the statue to him, said Sayadej, who was living at the temple at the time.
When word got out, locals who live in the area were outraged at what they saw as yet another ploy by the Vietnamese to come into the country and take whatever they want.
The Lao people harbor some animosity towards their much larger neighbor, the second-largest investor in the country after China. Lao critics say the Vietnamese disregard their land rights, their livelihoods and their religious beliefs while profiting at their expense.
Vietnam Rubber Group, which operates rubber plantations in Laos, for example, has come under fire from locals and rights groups for grabbing land from communities with little or no compensation, taking over burial grounds and sacred forests, and damaging the environment.
On Jan. 9, some BIDV employees arrived at Ongtue Wat, took the statue, loaded it into a vehicle, and drove away, offending locals even more because the Buddha was removed without a proper and dignified religious ceremony.
Boualone Dalavongsaen, Chanthabouly district governor, called a meeting with the leaders of local villages and monks and religious organizations about the Vietnamese bank employees removing the Buddha statue, Mixay villagers told RFA.
One source familiar with the matter and the goings-on at Ongtue Wat, but who declined to be named, told RFA that he believes Tran is a collector and likely wanted the statue to sell rather than for religious purposes.
“It is impossible that the statue was obtained for prayers and religion because of the way that the Vietnamese people who came to take it out of the temple showed that they do not respect the statue as sacred the way that Lao people do,” he said. “Without any rituals, they carried the statue and put it into a truck and drove away.”
He went on to say: “I am afraid that they [the Vietnamese] likely collect ancient items for commercial purposes. It isn’t necessary for them to take Buddha statues from Laos because in Vietnam there are many Buddha statues to pray to.”
Local media in Laos told RFA they have not covered the event, because they are controlled by the information ministry, and some news agencies have ties to LVB.
But a source at the information ministry, who has knowledge of the matter but declined to be named, told RFA that a high-ranking ministry official had agreed to give the statue to Tran because his bank does business in Laos and is a partner in the LVB joint venture.
Nevertheless, after news had gotten out among local residents, some of whom saw the statue being taken away, the Lao information minister ordered the Vietnamese bank employees to return it to Ongtue Wat five hours after they had taken it.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh of RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.