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Cambodia's Miss Landmine controversy

Between crackdowns on social freedoms, Phnom Penh cancels a beauty pageant for landmine victims.

Cambodian authorities have labeled the Miss Landmine competition inappropriate, but one contestant said she was disappointed by its cancellation and the loss of her "right of expression.” (Gorm K Gaare/Miss Landmine 2009)

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.”