Column: Obscene Miss Universe

Published on January 10, 2017.

I am one of many Filipinos who look up to Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach. She has done her beauty-contest-besotted country proud, not simply because she won the biggest prize of them all, but because of how she has conducted herself during her year-long term—her reign, in pageant-speak—as Miss Universe. Poised, smart, well-spoken and, to use her own meme-spawning phrase, confidently beautiful, she understood the most important albeit least known part of the beauty queen’s job description: diplomacy. She put that to good use when she championed the idea of the Philippines hosting the Miss Universe 2016 pageant.

The politician-businessman Chavit Singson is mainly responsible for pooling the resources that allowed the country to host this year’s competition, but Wurtzbach played a key role. Something she said at the pageant’s “kick-off” party last December is worth repeating: “It started with an idea and I asked Paula (Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization) if it’s okay for me to, during my interviews, during my homecoming, if it’s okay that I mention that we would like to host the next Miss Universe competition here because, who knows, it might actually happen!”

I am sure there are others like me who supported the idea, not only as an initiative to shine the light on the Philippines, but as an opportunity to temporarily stop the killings in President Duterte’s war on drugs. Our reasoning was: Surely the administration would signal to the police, and to the vigilantes who read the same cues, to observe a ceasefire in the ongoing war while international attention is focused on the country. After all, when the competition is in full swing, women from around 90 countries will be competing for Wurtzbach’s crown in different locations in the Philippines. Who would want glamorous images of beautiful women in tourist spots in the news every day, side by side gritty pictures of dead suspects on the streets?

Even the Marcoses during martial law were on their best behavior when the Philippines hosted a World Bank meeting, or an international film festival, or indeed, a Miss Universe pageant (in 1974). Surely the Duterte administration would follow suit?

It doesn’t look that way. There doesn’t seem to be any let-up in the administration’s deadly prosecution of the war on drugs, even as beauty queens from other countries have already started arriving in Manila. In fact, during that weekend when the Philippine hosting of the Miss Universe pageant officially got underway, in the presence of Wurtzbach and 10 beauty queens from around the region, the Inquirer listed at least 11 persons killed in either police operations or vigilante acts in the Kill List. That’s one for each visiting beauty queen—and includes Francis Mañosca, a 5-year-old boy killed by unknown hitmen.

Both the President and the chief of the Philippine National Police have vowed no let-up in the war, which may well mean dozens of nightly killings even when all the contestants, the object of coverage of their respective national media, are already in the country. If that is the case, if those are the circumstances, then hosting Miss Universe 2016 would become obscene. It would become a callous display of beautiful indifference or indifferent beauty, even as hundreds of names are added to the war’s casualty list.

The killings may reach a point when contestants either already in the country or en route may change their mind about participating in a beauty pageant surrounded by so much bloodshed.

Singson should use his influence with both the President and PNP Chief Ronald de la Rosa to ask for a temporary halt in the killings. The Duterte administration can justify the break as necessary to review the progress of its war (as even real militaries, in legitimate theaters of operation, do all the time). It may even decide to declare victory in the first phase of the war; I’m certain the majority of Filipinos won’t mind—the same majority who say in the surveys that they do not want mere suspects to be killed and that they themselves fear becoming victims of the war—as long as the killings, even if temporarily, come to a stop.

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