Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Beauty queens Megan Young of the Philippines and Moe Set Wine of Myanmar soon found themselves facing issues of race and racism after winning the Miss World and Miss Myanmar competitions, respectively.

Moe Set Wine will represent Myanmar at the Miss Universe pageant after she was crowned Miss Myanmar early this month. It will be the first time in 52 years that Myanmar is sending a contestant to the annual event, which is seen by some as yet more proof of reform and transition in the country. In fact, observers noted that some performances in the program made reference to Myanmar’s internal conflict.

But less than a week after her victory, the 25-year-old beauty queen quickly drew controversy after reports surfaced that she is Chinese and not Burmese. She allegedly joined the Miss Chinese International contest in 2009 under the name Yang Xinrong. Further, she shocked many people when she attended a football event and was greeted by Nay Shwe Thway Aung, the grandson of the country’s former dictator Than Shwe.

After reading these reports, some Burmese netizens wanted Moe Set Wine to give up her crown. An online beauty pageant was even held to search for a new representative to the Miss Universe event. But the organizers of the Miss Myanmar contest insisted that Moe Set Wine is a Burmese citizen who has won the right to represent Myanmar in the Miss Universe competition.

In an interview after her win, Moe Set Wine emphasized that “beauty alone is not enough to become Miss Universe.” Indeed, her toughest challenge today is not to prove her beauty and intelligence but to convince her fellow Burmese that she is a genuine citizen of Myanmar.

Fortunately for Megan Young of the Philippines, no Filipinos questioned her citizenship when she bagged this year’s Miss World title in Indonesia. But curiously, some international reports highlighted the fact that she is half-American who was born and raised in the United States. There is also an unconfirmed appeal to credit Megan Young’s victory to both the Philippines and the United States.

But it was the Twitter rant of Singapore-based Devina DeDiva which grabbed global attention after she insulted Megan Young and Filipinos in general.

“Miss Philippines is Miss World? What a joke! I did not know those maids have anything else in them,” wrote DeDiva who has since then deleted the racist Twitter post.

She added that Filipinos are poor, uneducated, and “smelly from cleaning toilets.”

Not surprisingly, DeDiva instantly became reviled in the Philippines. One Filipino filed a criminal case against DeDiva in Singapore for her racist remarks. She was also fired from her job as an assistant teacher. DeDiva has reportedly apologized to Megan Young and Filipinos for her comments, but many Filipinos remain angry.

Megan Young’s victory is special to Filipinos because it made the Philippines the third country in the world after Brazil and Venezuela to win all four major beauty pageants: Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Earth and Miss World. But racism, courtesy of DeDiva, almost ruined the celebration in the islands – which partly explains the vitriolic response of many Filipinos to DeDiva’s insulting posts.

Perhaps aside from promoting world peace and women’s empowerment, the Miss World winner can also advance the cause of racial harmony.

Harrison Ford and Rihanna: Environmental Crusaders?

Written for The Diplomat

Harrison Ford’s visit to Indonesia and Rihanna’s brief vacation in Thailand attracted not just the attention of their fans but also environmental advocates.

Ford arrived in Indonesia two weeks ago to make a documentary on climate change. His itinerary included a tour of the Tesso Nilo national park and high-profile interviews with the country’s Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But the Indiana Jones and Star Wars actor stirred controversy when Zulkifli accused him of rude behavior during their interview. Zulkifli complained that Ford didn’t give him enough time to prepare for the meeting. “The interview time was very limited. I was given a chance to make only one or two comments,” the minister said.

“I understand the American man just came here to see Tesso Nilo [a national park on the island of Sumatra] and wanted violators to be caught the same day,” he added. The minister was referring to Ford’s inquiry about the high rate of deforestation in the country.

Zulkifli’s complaint was echoed by a presidential special staffer on social affairs and disaster relief who described Ford’s behavior as “harassment against a state institution.” He even threatened that Ford could be deported because of the incident.

But public reaction seemed to be in favor of Ford. Many people thought he raised tough but pertinent questions about the effectiveness of the government’s environmental policies. Indeed, Ford was right on the mark when he asked about the failure of authorities to prosecute individuals and companies responsible for the forest fires that caused a deadly haze in the region a few months ago.

Fortunately, Ford was not deported and even managed to discuss the country’s forest situation with President Yudhoyono.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, a very different kind of star, pop singer Rihanna unintentionally exposed the continuing trade in protected wildlife in Thailand when she visited the island of Phuket last weekend.

Thai authorities were quickly alerted when Rihanna uploaded an Instagram selfie of a slow loris on her shoulder while touring Phuket’s Soi Bangla.

Perhaps Rihanna was not properly informed that the furry primate she was cuddling is a protected species. The loris is listed as a protected animal in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Under the Thailand Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, possession of the loris without a permit carries a penalty of 40,000 baht or up to four years’ imprisonment. A Loris Awareness Week was recently observed to educate the people about the need to protect the animal.

Despite these regulations, the loris continues to be peddled in Thailand’s resort islands, with police unable to apprehend individuals violating the law. Enter Rihanna.

Rihanna is just one of the many tourists who had been photographed holding a loris; but then again she is no ordinary tourist. Her Twitter account is followed by more than 31 million people. Her Instagram photo was “liked” by more than 250,000 subscribers. It’s simply impossible not to notice Rihanna’s selfie with the protected primate.

Thai police were clearly embarrassed by this unintended exposure. Naturally, animal welfare groups were outraged to learn that local authorities have been remiss in enforcing the laws that seek to protect the loris and other endangered species.

Immediately after Rihanna’s loris photo went viral, police launched a crackdown that led to the arrest of two men who were subsequently charged with illegal possession of the animal.

Ford and Rihanna have demonstrated once more how celebrities can help advance a particular advocacy. Ford has already sparked awareness and discussion about Indonesia’s fragile ecosystem and hopefully his documentary will provide an in-depth treatment of the environmental crisis in Indonesia. In the case of Rihanna, her seemingly innocent photos have forced Thai authorities to act. Perhaps in the future she might be recruited in the campaign for greater animal protection.

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