x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Cambodia calls off landmine pageant

The government says the beauty contest would have made a mockery of victims.

PHNOM PENH // The Cambodian government has banned a beauty pageant for women who have lost limbs to landmines. The contest was scheduled to launch this Friday with support from government ministries, but officials told organisers yesterday they no longer backed the project. Morten Traavik, founder of the Miss Landmine pageant, said he had two long meetings with officials from the ministry of social affairs and offered several compromises, which were rejected.

"They are really, really firm that they want all Miss Landmine activities to stop," he said. "Out of concern for the contestants we have no choice but to cancel." "The landmine beauty contest would make a mockery of Cambodia's landmine victims," said Khieu Khanarith, a government spokesman. "The government does not support this contest." Mr Traavik said he had been working with the ministries for the past two years to organise the event, which was aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of landmines. He had letters of endorsement from ministries and video footage of meetings with officials. "I never would have instigated this project without the support of the Cambodian authorities," he said.

Pum Chantinie, the secretary general of the Cambodian Red Cross, which assists landmine victims, said beauty pageants clash with Cambodian culture. "It's a very, very sensitive issue. We cannot afford to support this," she said. Heng Ratana, the director general of the Mine Action Centre, a government body charged with removing landmines, agreed that the Miss Landmine contest conflicted with "customs and culture".

"In the de-mining community we really felt somehow uncomfortable when we heard there would be this competition," he said. Mr Traavik said he was well aware that the event was controversial. He faced similar criticism when he threw the first Miss Landmine competition last year in Angola, one of the three countries most affected by landmines, along with Cambodia and Afghanistan. But he insisted that Cambodian officials were fully informed of plans for the event, which unlike the Angola pageant, would not feature swimsuits or other revealing outfits. Instead, the contestants, aged 18 to 48, were photographed in dresses and crowns. The photographs were to be unveiled at an exhibition this Friday at a Phnom Penh art gallery. The exhibition has been cancelled along with a ceremony on December 3 - world disability day - where Miss Landmine Cambodia was to be announced.

In addition to a panel of judges, the winner was to be decided by votes cast on the Miss Landmine website, www.miss-landmine.org/cambodia, which features pictures and a brief profile of each contestant. Mr Traavik said the online aspect of the contest would continue, with the winner being chosen by voters from around the world, despite government protests. "They are not happy with the website remaining up," said Mr Traavik. "The last point of contention is whether they can close it down, but the server is not Cambodian. I can't possibly see what they can do."

He said he would meet with the contestants and personally apologise as well as offer them a small sum of money to compensate them for their time and commitment to the project, which they have been involved with since December. One contestant, Song Kosal, said she respected the government's decision but thought Miss Landmine was an effective way to raise awareness. "My feeling from the beginning was that I am happy and I think it's a good project," said Ms Kosal who lost her leg to a landmine at the age of five.

Every year, hundreds of Cambodians are killed or maimed by landmines and other unexploded ordinance from decades of civil war. Mr Traavik said that while he was disappointed by the Cambodian government's decision to cancel the Miss Landmine pageant, he also saw a silver lining: "The ban actually attracted more attention to the issue of landmines." jferrie@thenational.ae