Beauty pageants expose dreams and dangers in modern Myanmar

Fri Sep 26, 2014 12:16pm EDT
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By Thin Lei Win

YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sparkling in a red, sequined dress, Htet Htet Htun spins around the stage rehearsing a traditional Burmese dance that she hopes will make her stand out from 18 other young hopefuls competing in the first Miss Myanmar World pageant this month.

Beauty pageants are thriving in Myanmar after being banned during nearly half a century of military dictatorship that ended in 2011 when a semi-civilian government took power.

Hoping for a better life and dreaming of fame and fortune, young Myanmar women are racing at every opportunity to enter the growing list of beauty contests that opened up to them in 2012.

But the rapid rise of an industry that splits opinion in many countries - with opponents accusing pageants of objectifying women - is exposing both the opportunities and pitfalls faced by modern Myanmar with stories of scandal and exploitation.

By the end of this year, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, will have competed in at least 10 international pageants, including Miss Universe Myanmar and Miss Asia Pacific World. About 130 applicants signed up in four days for the inaugural Miss Myanmar World contest that will be held on Sept. 27.

"If I win, I want to do charity work that would befit a beauty queen. I'd also like to become an actress and continue working in the entertainment industry," Htet Htet Htun, 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside a dimly-lit studio in the Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, after her rehearsal.

The popularity of beauty contests underscores how Myanmar is racing to catch up with the rest of the world after decades of near-isolation - and many contestants are finding themselves on a crash course in how to cope in such a competitive field.

May Myat Noe became the country's first international beauty queen in May this year when she won the Miss Asia Pacific World title in Seoul, South Korea - only to be dethroned three months later in a vicious, public spat with contest organizers.   Continued...

A woman trains as a model at Star model agency in Yangon August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun