ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

A Beauty Pageant Stirs Southeast Asia’s Political Pot

Miss Grand Cambodia has been rebuked for her “no politics” approach – and for eating while talking.

A Beauty Pageant Stirs Southeast Asia’s Political Pot

Han Lay, Miss Grand International Myanmar, who has spoken out in opposition to the recent military coup in her country.

Credit: Facebook/Han Lay

Rarely has a beauty pageant contestant had anything to say on politics that’s worth recording. However, two bikini clad competitors in the upcoming Miss Grand International have gone viral for their online statements, earning very different responses from unlikely quarters.

The first was a tearful Han Lay, Miss Grand International Myanmar, who sang the praises of the female protestors in her homeland, while quarantined in Bangkok ahead of the competition on Saturday.

“I share the same indescribable sadness and sorrow as each and everyone of us in Myanmar,” she said during an interview with fans on the pageant’s official channel. “I’m sorry I can’t even control my tears… We must win the revolution.”

She described Aung San Suu Kyi – ousted by the Myanmar military in a coup last month – “as my greatest inspiration,” adding that the pageant gave her the opportunity to answer her fans back home and speak out about the atrocities being committed under the junta led by Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Others also backed her. Talk a lot about the daily unarmed killings and violence in every township,” wrote Yoon Mhi Mhi Kyaw, Miss Universe Myanmar 2019. Chantarapadit Namfon, this year’s Miss Grand Thailand, chipped in with, Proud of u for your country’s fighting.”

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Even the show’s host Nawat Itsaragrisil noted that her comments were rare and refreshing to some in an organization that – like all beauty pageants – desperately wants to be seen as apolitical.

Perhaps the most controversial moment of the pageant’s eight year history came in 2016, when organizers were accused of fat shaming after Miss Grand Iceland, Arna Yr Jonsdottir, was told she was “too fat and needed to lose weight” prior to the finals in Las Vegas.

And then there’s Lyv Chili, Miss Grand Cambodia, who did her best to live-up to those apolitical, non-controversial ideals.

She posted a video of herself, eating and talking, and telling fans not to get involved with politics in her home country, where the government has been sanctioned by the West for its crack down on opposition politicians and dissenting voices.

The video was picked up by One News Today and posted on its Facebook page, where it faced an immediate backlash. One person commented, “Myanmar women were willing to die in battle while serving their conscience.” Of Cambodians it was added: “Khmer women: Living in peace and afraid of dying, everyday thinking about makeup and business, and doing useless things.”

With more than a hundred members and supporters of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) before the courts on insurrection charges, many found her comments disheartening.

One Facebook user also pointed out it was rude to eat and talk at the same time: “Such shame! Miss Grand Cambodia, live, tells her supporters not to get involved in politics, which is the opposite of Miss Grand Myanmar who is shouting and crying live on social media about her country!”

Beauty pageants are little more than an excuse to decorate young women in swim suits and designer wear. Add a dash of nationalism and cheap entertainment, made for sponsors, is born.

But such contests generally do offer an international stage for public opinion.

And the contrasts were stark, offering an insight into the diversity and the tragic realities of a region where women are still discouraged from entering politics, embarking on higher education or careers and speaking out on issues like domestic violence.

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That was highlighted by the Cambodian tycoon Duong Chhay whose royal honorific of oknha was revoked after he viciously beat his ex-wife Deth Malina shortly before she announced their divorce more than three months ago.

Police opened investigations only after a video of the violent bashing went viral and a public outcry followed with Duong Chhay defending himself – badly – by claiming he beat his wife because she tried to control him.

There are no excuses for such dreadful, violent behavior. The same can be said for the generals in Myanmar, while there are no shortage of critics of the Cambodian government’s attitude to people it finds disagreeable. Lyv Chili is not one of them.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.