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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Miss Tibet, a Pageant Loaded With Controversy and Drama

November 27, 2008

By Emily Wax
The Washington Post
November 26, 2008; A06

DHARMSALA, India -- For Buddhists, the first noble truth is that all
life is suffering -- and that apparently applies to beauty pageants, too.

The Miss Tibet pageants, seen by many as a showcase of feminine
beauty, have been fraught with controversy and drama. Even though the
contests take place in a drowsy Himalayan town in India -- home to
the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles -- the Chinese government and
some Tibetan elders have pressured contestants to withdraw. It is
probably one of the few things that the political rivals can agree
on. "Heavy is the head that wears the tiara," one Tibetan TV station reported.

Unsurprisingly, there are few runners-up in the Miss Tibet pageants.
This year, only two entered the contest, which is in its seventh edition.

And the winner was Sonam Choedon, a shy 18-year-old with shiny
waist-length black hair and high cheekbones. At 16, she fled her
homeland on the Tibetan plateau to Dharmsala, headquarters of the
Tibetan Government in Exile.

"We can't feel too much happiness with what was going on in Tibet,"
Choedon said. "But winning Miss Tibet means I can contribute to the
Tibetan cause. It gives me a platform to talk about Tibet."

And that infuriates China, which annexed Tibet nearly 60 years ago.
In the long-standing conflict between the world's most populous
country and a tiny community of Buddhists seeking a return to their
homeland, the Miss Tibet pageant is a symbol of defiance against
Chinese rule. China has successfully pressured organizers of
international beauty pageants to bar entrants from Tibet who refuse
to wear a sash that reads, "Miss Tibet-China."

The heavily made-up contestants wear elaborate gold jewelry and
floor-length chubas, traditional Tibetan robes. The pageants include
yoga competitions and questions about Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan
history. The toughest part is the swimsuit round -- in addition to
enduring the gawking men, the contestants must weather the mountain chill.

"It was very cold," said Choedon, who was crowned last month, edging
out a 22-year-old receptionist. Tibetan elders have called on their
leaders to suspend the pageants, saying that they are incompatible
with the Buddhist philosophy of non-materialism and respect for inner beauty.

To the elders, the pageants are a sign that their culture is being
watered down, especially with so much of the population in exile.
Many of the 130,000 Tibetan exiles living in the shadow of northern
India's snow-capped mountains have fought hard to preserve their
traditions, especially here in Dharmsala, where Israeli and U.S.
backpackers mingle with monks in cafes that serve Tibetan dumplings
and mocha lattes. Some Internet cafes here include free head massages
while surfing the Web.

But many young Tibetans praise the Miss Tibet contest and say it
shows how their generation -- raised in exile -- is carving out a
fresh identity.

"For Tibetan society, a beauty pageant is a very culturally shocking
thing. There was immense social pressure not to participate," said
Tsering Kyi, 25, a newspaper columnist, who was crowned Miss Tibet
2003 after 13 other contestants dropped out under pressure. "But the
younger generation likes American hip-hop, they watch a lot of TV,
they have a lot of Western influences. We don't mind mixing cultures."

Kyi, like many in her generation, has put her energy into the tools
of Tibet's nonviolent struggle: writing essays and helping friends
screen Tibetan documentaries at cafes around town.

"Miss Tibet is an important protest tool in a nonviolent movement,"
she said. "It needs to stay creative."

When the contest was first held, the prime minister of the Tibetan
Government in Exile called it "un-Tibetan" and "aping Western
culture." In 2005, seven women pulled out at the last moment under
pressure from elders.

But in 2006, the Dalai Lama calmed nerves with his characteristic
humor: "If there is Miss Tibet, why not Mister Tibet?" the Dalai Lama
said. "He could be handsome. Then it would be more equal."

Crowning a Miss Tibet can be as tricky and controversial as choosing
the next Dalai Lama, a process that involves searching for a child
who recognizes his previous incarnation's possessions.

Some potential contestants said they kept away this year because they
were worried about offending those suffering in Tibet, where Chinese
troops cracked down on protesters recently. There is also a shortage
of funds to cover the cost of the pageant and the prize money. Even
actor Richard Gere, who has visited the Dalai Lama, thought the idea
was odd. "He laughed a lot and wished me luck," said Lobsang Wangyal,
founder and director of the Miss Tibet pageant, who pays the prize
money out of his pocket.

"At the heart of the contest is Tibetan pride since it asserts Tibet
as a nation," Wangyal said. He got the idea, he said, "by thinking
how great it would be to have a Miss Tibet on stage with a Miss
China. Plus, it's empowering for young Tibetan women to build
confidence. It opens our society up to the world."

In Wangyal's office one recent day, Choedon was getting English and
Web-surfing lessons from a monk.

The pageant winner, who is from a tiny farming village, said she is
slowly adjusting to life outside Tibet. She had painted her nails
pink, was chewing gum and wearing a new pair of jeans. She had
recently discovered pizza.

Swinging her hair across her back, she put a Tibetan spin on the
cliched beauty queen's desire for world peace.

"Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: 'No matter what, never give
up.' So I dream of returning to a free Tibet. I hope they could move
the Miss Tibet pageant home one day," she said.

Then she struck a pose, hands on her hips, head held high.
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