Cambodia's Miss Landmine controversy

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Miss Landmine Cambodia was all ready to kick off this week with a big party in Phnom Penh.

That was until its its creator received a letter issued by the Ministry of Social Affairs bearing the signature of Prime Minister Hun Sen. It said: "The ministry asks the people who organize this contest to stop this action … for protecting the honor and dignity of people with disabilities."

Describing his reaction, pageant founder Morten Traavik, said: “It was shock, surprise, incredulity.” Until the Social Affairs Ministry letter arrived, the 38-year-old Norwegian artist  believed he had the full support of the Cambodian government.

He assumed that there had been a miscommunication. A three-week photography exhibition was scheduled to begin days later, with a launch party attended by the pageant’s 20 contestants and several hundred guests. The event coincided with the start of online voting for the pageant’s winner, who will be crowned according to both an Internet vote and a jury panel in December. “Not only was it out of the question but they also told me they would take ‘any possible step’ to prevent it,” he said after attending an emergency meeting Monday with the ministry to try and negotiate a compromise. “When the government uses an expression like that, I had no other choice but to comply.”

When Traavik first visited in August 2007, the then-secretary general of Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) issued a letter stating CMAA's “appreciation and support” for the project and asking “the relevant authorities and institutions to assist … in any way possible.”

“When you get a letter like that, you expect that they’ve cleared it with their superiors, which I think he had,” Traavik said, and he proceeded coordinating the event, with CMAA and other governmental organizations as partners. He believes the sudden about-face stems from the government’s current, unrelated clampdown on freedoms.

“They don’t want discussion; they don’t want debate; they don’t want controversy,” he said. “Because, of course, controversy can breed more debate about other things.”

International monitors accuse the Cambodian government of committing a recent spate of human rights abuses. In July, two poor and HIV-afflicted communities in Phnom Penh were forcibly evicted to make way for development. An alarming number of human rights workers and journalists have recently been jailed or ousted from their positions. And a court recently found opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua guilty of defaming the prime minister because she sued him for calling her a derogatory name.

The government is threatening to sue Traavik if he continues with the online vote, which he says is not subject to Cambodian laws and will run through December. Though the website remains accessible inside the country, the ministry has banned a 70-page glossy magazine with a cover title reading “Landmine Survivor’s Fashion” and featuring photos of one-legged women in cocktail dresses, reclining in hotels, standing by the ocean and seated inside Angkorian temples. Those who oppose the project may be offended that the women are not wearing traditional Khmer dress, suggested Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, which helped organize the pageant.

“When you look at the pictures, the purpose is not to highlight the beauty of the women, it’s to display that the women have lost their legs,” argued Heng Ratana, director-general of Cambodian Mine Action Centre, the government-run demining unit. “Beauty pageants may be appropriate in other countries, but not in Cambodia,” Ratana said. In 2006, the prime minister cancelled plans for a Miss Cambodia pageant. In 2008, he restated his ban on the contests, saying they are a waste of money and he would not allow them until poverty in Cambodia was reduced by more than half.

Beauty pageants are also considered derogatory in Cambodia, Ratana added, explaining, “In Cambodian, when you talk about ‘Miss,’ that means unmarried women competing for beauty and the attention of men.” Other inclusive competitions, like sports, can raise awareness about landmine disabilities in a more empowering fashion, he said.

“The critics of the project haven’t cared to know what the actual main protagonists think about this, which I think is very typical, not only in our relationship with disabled people but in our relationship with peoples of the Third World and minorities,” Traavik countered. “We always think we know what is good for them, and act on their behalf.”

Song Kosal, who is Miss Landmine Phnom Penh, said she was disappointed by the ruling, but she was careful not to criticize the government directly.

“I feel unhappy because when the party was canceled it meant that I, a disabled person, lost my right of expression.”

Kosal, 24, works for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. When she was five years old, Kosal stepped on a $15, Hungarian-made antipersonnel mine while living in Battambang province in northwest Cambodia. Ongoing battles between factions occurred in this region during the decade-long, post-Khmer Rouge civil war in the 1980s and it remains one of Cambodia’s most heavily mined areas. Foreign countries funded and armed the factions, and the manufacturers of the mines that injured the contestants include China, Russia, the United States and Vietnam, among others, according to the magazine.

Bou Rithy, a 37-year-old landmine survivor who works for the Australian Red Cross, said he hopes the disability community will lobby the government to allow the competition.

It will raise awareness about landmine trading, he said, and empower people with disabilities. “I admire them,” he remarked of the contestants. “They look beautiful and nice.”

In an ideally inclusive society, a person with a disability would enter a regular beauty contest, Jeroen Van Hove, press officer for Handicap International, wrote by e-mail. Still, initiatives like Miss Landmine can be useful, he added.

Traavik created and staged the first Miss Landmine last year in Angola. He also carried a disco ball around North Korea, bringing some sparkle to a nation led by a man in a monocolor jumpsuit. Both countries’ governments permitted his project, with Angola providing funding and its First Lady crowning the winners. When the results of the online vote for the Cambodia pageant are announced in December, Traavik will ensure the winner receives her prize — a custom-made, golden limb.

“If I must, I will go to the border myself to deliver it,” he said, “Rambo-style, in a cross-border raid, with a prosthesis instead of a gun.”