Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Tuesday that as long as he leads the nation there will be no Miss Cambodia contest, and that the country should be focusing on alleviating poverty instead of promoting beauty.
Hun Sen also said a previous Miss Cambodia competition in 1994 brought so much bad luck that it caused a theater to go up in flames, and he attacked beauty pageants for encouraging women to strip down to their underpants.
“We will wait until the Cambodia poverty line drops below 15 percent, and the [average] Cambodian yearly income exceeds $1,500, then they can have the contest,” he said at an inauguration ceremony in Svay Rieng province that was broadcast on Apsara radio. Cambodia’s current per capita income is around $300 per year.
“We can’t take one beautiful lady to participate in the contest and claim it is our national identity and then have them wear their underpants,” he added, apparently referring to women posing in swimming costumes at beauty pageants.
Hun Sen said there are better ways to portray Cambodia’s culture other than beauty shows.
“Some people said they regretted that Cambodia could not show our national culture at a world beauty contest,” he said. “I say, please take a picture of Angkor Wat to show [Cambodian culture]. We don’t show beautiful women, it is nonsense.”
Hun Sen also claimed that in 1994, a Miss Cambodia contest was held in Phnom Penh where contestants had to take virginity tests. The pageant brought bad luck to Cambodia and caused the Bassac Theater to burn down, he added.
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Develop-ment, said she recalled a private beauty pageant taking place in 1994, but no Miss Cambodia contest.
She also said she had never heard of virginity tests being conducted at such pageants, and that the Bassac Theater fire was likely caused by faulty wiring rather than bad karma.
Despite his criticism, Hun Sen said small companies will be allowed to hold beauty contests as long as they don’t harm Cambodia’s image or use any national motifs.
“People can hold the beauty contest as long as they don’t use the Cambodian flag, the Khmer language, and national symbols,” he said.
Hun Sen also discussed Cambodia’s delegation to the 2005 South East Asian Games in Manila, which was led by embattled Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Hun Sen said the trip was unnecessarily expensive and announced that he will transfer funding from the National Olympic Committee to the Cambodian Red Cross, which is headed by his wife Bun Rany.
Hun Sen’s Miss Cambodia ban is the latest offensive in what appears to be a morality campaign by his ruling CPP.
On Friday, the National Assem-bly passed a controversial law that could see unfaithful spouses spending up to a year behind bars.
In May, Hun Sen banned the latest technology mobile phones after Bun Rany and the spouses of several other top government officials complained to him that women could use the 3G phones to seduce husbands.
In December, popular singer and dancer Chea Sovanna was banned from CTN after Hun Sen appealed directly to station owner Kith Meng.
The young singer was accused of dancing too raunchily and gyrating in skimpy outfits. She subsequently made a televised public apology to Hun Sen and Bun Rany, and was allowed to resume her career.
Mu Sochua, a member of the Sam Rainsy Party and former minister of women’s affairs, said the government should focus on more important issues than beauty pageants and personal morality.
“The government has to answer to the people why it hasn’t come out with a draft for the anti-corruption law,” she said. “The prime minister in any country should not use his time to worry about whether there should be a Miss Cambodia.”
Minister of Culture Prince Sisowath Panara Sereyvuth disagreed, saying he backed the prime minister’s puritanical crusade.
“I think that the government should be focusing on that and I think that morality is important for society,” he said.
“I think that morality is more important [than corruption],” he added.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the SRP, said there may be other motivations behind Hun Sen’s campaign.
“I think that it is a distraction from real and serious issues such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of public services,” he said.
He added that government officials should not be trying to take the moral high ground.
“How can [the government] suggest that other people behave with high moral standards if they do not display these high moral standards themselves?” he asked.
Hun Sen’s adviser Om Yentieng said that the public has demanded that the government focus on moral issues.
“If the government isn’t responsible [for morality] people will blame the government,” he said.
He also said the Miss Cambodia ban will not make anyone any poorer.
“The Cambodian people are still living in poverty. The ban will not cause people not to have rice to eat,” he said.
Outspoken political analyst Lao Mong Hay wrote in an e-mail that the issue indicates a bigger problem in government.
“[A]ll this fuss reflects the impasse our ruling elites [are] experiencing in the administration of the country as a result of their inability to make bold decisions to tackle accumulating and bigger problems,” Lao Mong Hay wrote.
“Out of control corruption, logging, employment, poverty, [the] widening gap between the rich and the poor,” he said.
“They are deluding themselves and the Cambodian people—or some of them.”