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Thailand and the Miss Universe pageant

by Veenarat Laohapakakul, The Nation, June 4, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- Apart from the glitz, beauty and excitement that the Miss Universe pageant brought to Thailand, the event left us with a lot to ponder. It showcased the best of Thailand, in terms of places, culture and products. But it also pointed out how contradictory the image we try to project of ourselves is compared with reality.

Thailand regards itself as predominantly Buddhist, so when incidents involving disrespect towards temples and the like occur, Thais become easily upset. Take, for example, the bikini-clad Miss Universe contestants posing before revered temples right in the heart of Bangkok.

There?s nothing wrong with feeling upset or offended when one?s own culture, tradition or way of life is not respected by others. But while the uproar over that particular incident was heard loud and clear, more serious ones go largely ignored.

Take such recent cases as monks brawling in the street because of overlapping alms routes, monks pumping out pornographic DVDs for sale and monks caught having sex. There is public outrage, but it fades quickly as such blasphemous acts become increasingly common in the headlines.

At the same time, while we seem very concerned about beauty contestants posing with temples tarnishing our religion, we completely forget to examine whether we, supposed Buddhists, ourselves respect Buddhist teachings.

The five basic precepts of Buddhism prohibit killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and drinking. How many of us actually practise all five? Saying this doesn?t mean I?m open to acting as you please around temples, because the rule should remain: ?When in Rome, do as the Romans do?.

My point is that we seem to care a lot about how we are viewed, about superficialities, but not about living up to the basic principles of what we claim we stand for. Only a very small number of us actually ?walk the walk?.

As for tourism, the government has hailed the Miss Universe pageant as a huge success that will help attract foreign visitors. That may be true. We?ll have to wait and see if arrival numbers really do increase in the coming months.

But again, while we care about the postcards we send to the world, the reality is that our natural beauty, ancient treasures and wildlife are no longer as pristine as they once were. Our coastal waters are becoming more polluted, discordant structures line the beaches, everywhere trash is an eyesore and there?s no systematic preservation of historic places.

No wonder people from all over the world flock to the islands in the South to enjoy the full-moon parties. Where else would you be able to run as wild and free?

Advertising and promotions do help reel in the tourists, but I am not so sure that what they see matches their expectations. The relevant agencies tend to gloss over issues like nature conservation and the preservation of ancient artefacts, while owners of some tourism-related businesses seem to care only about making a quick profit.

And while the good image that Thailand will get for playing host has been stressed, the beauty pageant was supposed to be a test for a fundamental, universal concept of ?fairness?. How can having only Thai and foreign-resident judges for the national costume round be considered ?fair??

Since when did it become de rigueur for the host country?s contestant to win at least one category? It is not winning that should matter, but rather how someone wins. Any winner should emerge victorious with a grand feeling of having truly earned it, with grace and dignity and beyond any doubt that it was a fair judgement. But anyone uttering such an argument, though, might be viewed as ?unpatriotic?.

?Why don?t you support your own country?? That sort of nationalistic sentiment is always dangerous, because it serves as the perfect tool to shut anyone up. No one wants to be branded ?unpatriotic?.

But being patriotic in this case should not be about whether the public supported the Thai contestant, but about how the host country ? Thailand ? could ensure a fair judgement for all. By acting thus, the image the world sees is one of transparency and fairness, and that will translate into respect and amity from others.

Still, the Miss Universe contest was a breather from other, more disturbing matters, ones involving the conduct of top leaders in this country. Watching all of the contestants? smiles is, of course, more heart-warming than watching those of the crooks in suits and ties.



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