A tarnished beauty queen

opinion May 22, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Why are we lambasting a student for remarks made months before she became Miss Universe Thailand, yet allowing our politicians to spew "hate speech" daily?

Thailand’s political challenges extend far beyond the question of how the country will emerge from under martial law. Our bitter conflict has opened deep wounds of division in almost every sphere of national life. The latest test for Thais’ ability to live in peace with one another has been delivered by an unlikely individual – Miss Universe Thailand. How the country responds to her will go a long way to telling us whether there is truly light at the end of the tunnel.

Crowned Miss Universe Thailand 2014 at the weekend, Weluree “Fai” Disayabut suddenly found herself lashed by an online social-media storm. Her biggest “crime” was to be open about her political views, which she had aired online long before winning the title.

A Facebook post in November had Weluree professing her devotion to His Majesty the King and lambasting red-shirt protesters as “dirty” individuals whose exit from the country would make it a “cleaner” place. Predictably, the remarks caused uproar, with many people asking whether she was the right person to go forward and represent Thailand in the Miss Universe contest overseas. Weluree responded by apologising publicly and vowing to “improve”.

But, having ignored the beauty-queen stereotype by not expressing her love of children, pets and nature, Weluree is not fit to wear the crown, say many self-appointed “judges”. Why such a strong reaction? Are beauty queens barred from expressing ideas? Doctors, academics, actors, businesspeople and just about everyone else have expressed their opinions during the political crisis. So why is it so alien for Weluree, a student at the time, to express hers?

Could sexism be the reason? Whatever the answer, the public needs to do some soul-searching over the backlash.

Beauty pageant contestants are often perceived as “all looks and no brain”. Onstage they are supposed to stick to light chat about entertainment and tourism. Cross the line by mentioning politics and they no longer fit the profile.

Responding to online critics who branded her “a big-mouth”, Weluree admitted using impolite words in the Facebook post, but explained: “I was talking to my friend. I was a teenager and hadn’t thought carefully before posting.” Her Facebook page was “private” back then, shared only with a small network of “friends”. Her remarks are nothing when compared to the foul words that spill daily from the mouths of politicians and are broadcast to the nation on TV. Think of the rally speeches by the likes of Suthep Thaugsuban, Dr Seri Wongmontha, Kaewsan Atipoh, Jatuporn Promphan, Weng and Thida Thavornseth, Nuttawut Saikuar and Veerakan Musikapong.

The furore over Miss Thailand’s remarks is only the latest example of Thailand’s has longstanding double standards when it comes to human rights. Suriyasai Takasila, a prominent critic of the government, says he doesn’t understand why people are complaining about the threat to rights posed by martial law when they have turned a blind eye to the killing of anti-government protesters this past few months. The truth is that we have always shown this kind of inconsistency when it comes to questions of rights.

Weluree has been crowned a beauty queen, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t enjoy the same rights as any other citizen. The student-turned-Miss-Universe Thailand will do no political harm to the country. Our focus should instead be on the real cause of damage: speeches aired on the political stage that are picked up by world media and become the image of Thailand. If we start censuring our politicians for “hate speech” as seriously as we do our beauty queens, we have a chance at a peaceful future.