Frequently Asked Questions about the Miss Landmine project, answered by artist Morten Traavik.
How did it all start?
My point of departure you could say
is that of just another middle-class whiteboy from a privileged society
with an itch to do something to save the world a little and feel better
about myself. Being a director and actor to start with, I've grown
increasingly bored with my often a bit too self-satisfied work
environment and wanted to apply my skills to a more challenging reality
outside the self-imposed inner exile of the arts scene. The rest is
chance meeting preparation: My then-girlfriend has an Angolan father,
who lives in the capital Luanda and whom we visited over Xmas and New
Year in 2003. The civil war had ended just the year before and we still
couldn't move around much because of all the landmines still littering
the countryside. Some street kids were staging a homemade beauty
pageant in the back alley behind the father's house and they asked me
to sit in on the jury. So at some point those two impressions gave
birth to one idea. Since I figured I was probably the only one in the
world with that particular idea at that time, that gave me a moral
obligation to at least try to put it into action.
After Angola, why Cambodia?
Several reasons - because I wanted to show that the landmine problem is global, and also the situation of landmine survivors is global, and that the wish to be seen and noticed as a beautiful and resourceful human being is something that everybody can recognize. Also, I wanted to try the project in a country with a different cultural setting than the Angolan one, but that still has many similarities in its recent history.
What will be the 1st prize for the winner?
As in Angola, the first prize is a specially-designed and costumized prothesis from Norway's leading orthopaedic clinic, worth around USD 15000.
How many candidates are taking part?
In Cambodia there are 20 candidates aged 18-48, each representing her home province.
How are the contestants chosen?
In both Angola and Cambodia I’ve been collaborating
closely with local and national authorities. Initally a matter of
nescessity as no foreign NGO would have anything to do with us, and
still don't, but now I'm really happy it turned out that way because
working within the local culture ith a minimum of outside assistance
gives us a far more grounded moral legitimacy that if this would just
have been another "here's your money/goat/new village well, good luck
with it" aid project. In Cambodia, the identification of prospective
participants is handled by the Cambodian Disabled People's Organisation
(CDPO) and its dynamic director Ngin Saorath, himself disabled. CDPO
has a countrywide network of offices in almost all Cambodian provinces,
and the word about our project was put out to its local field officers
who then approached the landmine survivors already taking part in their
rehabilitation programmes. As in Angola, we had many more applicants
than we could possibly take on board, so I made the final selection in
close dialogue with Saorath.
What’s the schedule for the voting process?
The international voting process will continue as planned on our website www.miss-landmine.org/cambodia until December 3, the UN World Disability Day. On that same day, votes will be counted and verified and the winner announced in an international press release. Thereafter, I will hopefully finally be allowed by the Cambodian government to gather the contestants to the final banquet and deliver the prothesis to the winner.
What kind of criteria do the judges consider when picking finalists?
Part of the point is not to impose too strict criteria on the judges, or on any other spectator who decides to get involved by voting for his/hers candidate. On the contrary, we encourage the voter to take a moment before voting to get to know his/hers own criteria for choosing a certain candidate. Is it because I find her the most conventionally beautiful one? The one I feel the most sorry for? Or the one whose prothesis(es) look in the worst shape? Etcetera. The final events are staged along the lines of your regular Miss America-style pageant. No reason to alter a winning formula...And there can, of course, be only one winner. However, the ladies participating are fully aware that this is more than a mere beauty pageant, that they are employed as my fellow artists in a campaign where a main aim is to influence some attitudes, both outside and within themselves.
What kind of social nuances do you have to consider when suggesting that women get up on stage for a beauty pageant? How does the attitude of the Angolans and Khmers differ from Western attitudes?
In my work in general, I try not to worry too much about social nuances. I think a main problem with us whities when dealing with perceived "exotic" cultures are that we are either totally disrespectful or far too respectful. Both stem from exotism and a fear of dealing with people as just that: people, on an equal basis. There are, of course, obvious cultural differences between countries thousands of miles apart and on different continents. For instance, Khmer women would be very reluctant to pose in a bikini, something that most of the Angolan participants would have no problem with. In Cambodia, women swim fully dressed. But this is not what I regard as an essential difference. So far, within the context of the Miss Landmine work process there have been more similarities than differences. Which kind of supports my theory that the need for and joy of being seen, appreciated, taken seriously and - something so simple - not being patronized by neither bigoted neighbours nor aid workers; those feelings are universal and deeply human. And again I would say that from my own experience there are far more, and more important, similarities than differences. However, the most obvious difference so far is not between Cambodia and Angola, but between those countries and our part of the world: Very few Angolans or Khmer understand at all why there are Western "feminists" being outraged and concerned on their behalf for taking part in Miss Landmine!
As an artist, is this first and foremost an art project?
With raising awareness about landmines being a great added bonus?
I don't think that making “art” – whatever that is - must exclude a vision that transcends genres . Which is precisely the point of staging Miss Landmine in real life and not in an art gallery or on a theatre stage.
Are there any statistics to illustrate the severity of the landmine problem in Cambodia?
None very accurate, and that’s exactly the problem. Guerilla forces tend not to keep mine grid plans, statistics are often sketchy and contradictory and the infrastructure roads etc, particularily in Angola, is still so damaged by the war that it is difficult to get to the different parts of the countries. What we do know is that there are an estimated 40.000 landmine survivors living in Cambodia today, and that figure does not include all those who died from their mine injuries. Even after 10-15 years of active mine clearance, there are still believed to be millions of landmines left in the ground in Cambodia. Both Angola and Cambodia are regarded as in top 5 of the world's most landmine-contaminated countries.
Where do you get the project funding from?
Economically, the project has so far been funded mainly by the Norwegian Arts Council and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, with substantial co-funding by the Angolan government and the EU Mission to Angola. In Cambodia, which hasn’t got the oil revenues that Angola has, we are also looking for Cambodian and international sponsors to help us take the project to the final stage.
Have you ever had chance to talk with Cambodian officials involved with this event after it was cancelled?
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Affairs (MOSVY), the prakas(decree) signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen was made public on Friday July 31, however I was not made familiar with it until Sunday August 2. MOSVY have explicitly also stated that they would not allow any of the candidates to travel to Phnom Penh to meet me, even for a private farewell dinner. I have heard nothing from them since our last-ditch negotiation meetings on Monday August 3, the day after I was made aware of the ban. During two 3-hours long meetings between me and the Cabinet of the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry's chief representative, Chief of Staff Samheng Boros (the son of the Minister of Social Affairs) stated repeatedly that the government would take "any possible step" to prevent Miss Landmine from going ahead in Cambodia, then threatened legal action against me for refusing to close down our website and remove the pictures from it. Then Prime Minister Hun Sen said in public that dissenters have "thick faces" and spoke about "chopping them one hundred times with a meat cleaver". As mentioned, the government forbade me even to meet with the women to say a decent goodbye to them. It all adds up to what I perceive as a relatively unpleasant athmosphere and my Cambodian friends and collaborators were very worried about me and advised me to leave the country. Also, I did not want my continued presence in the country to lead to any further trouble for my Cambodian associates and least of all the candidates themselves. .
Did you get any explanation for the Government’s sudden cancellation?
The exact reasons are known only to them. Their one and only public statement so far is that the project "offends the honour and dignity" of the Cambodian candiates. However, already in 2007 I had the stated support of the Cambodian Mine Action Autority (CMAA) signed by their Secretary General. CMAA is the Cambodian government's central coordinating organ for all things landmine-related, including victims assistance and rehabilitation. Since then, I have been keeping in close contact with the CMAA, and the Canadian documentary film team who has followed the whole process of Miss Landmine Cambodia from the start even have extensive footage of meetings with top officials of the CMAA expressing their support for the project as late as March this year. Also, I have had meetings with the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSVY), represented by Secretary of State H.E. Sem Sokha who has given his support to the project. In an article in the Phnom Penh Post as late as July 27, slightly more than one week before the exhibition opening, Sokha was quoted as saying that MOSVY had "no objection" to the Miss Landmine Cambodia project. Also, in March I had a meeting with H E Sivann Botum, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, who expressed her appreciation and support of the project. Both Sokha and Botum were already in March shown the pictures of the candidates that are now appearing on our website. Not at any point before the P.M.s ban on Miss Landmine, after an initiative by Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng, have any of these organisations retracted or otherwise changed their stance of support for the project. That these representatives are going back on their statements after the P.M.s ban is not to wonder about.
Can you guess what is behind the government's decision? Is there any inconvenience for the government involved?
A good question, which you should
really ask the Cambodian government, given that Miss Landmine had the
government’s full and official support for almost two years before this
sudden U-turn on their behalf. Officially, their reason was that they
feared the project would “offend the honour and dignity” of the
candidates and of disabled people in Cambodia.
Again, without asking a single one of the candidates what they
themselves felt about Miss Landmine! However, in my view the whole
incident is connected to an regime that has grown more and more
authoritarian over the last few years, who allows less and less freedom
of expression in Cambodia, beating up and sometimes killing opposition
politicians, intimidating the free press, and who want to stay in power
at any price. The day after the ban on Miss Landmine was made public,
there was a peaceful opposition rally in Phnom Penh were beaten up by
riot police. Naturally, the Government then are afraid of
controversial art projects, because controversy breeds discussion and
debate, and free expression, free discussion and debate is what the
Cambodian government wants least of all at the moment. See also for
Do you have any plans to deal with Cambodian government again?
I am still waiting for their answer to my request to be allowed to see the candidates again. I also hope with time to be able to make them see how unfortunate their decision is for Cambodia and its disabled citizens.
What do the candidates themselves think about the cancellation?
The candidates are naturally very disappointed, after having looked forward to and prepared themselves for the official launch of Miss Landmine Cambodia for almost one year. Also, they do not understand why the Cambodian government, who says it cares about disabled people, doesn't want to let them show themselves in a positive way. One of our candidates, Song Kosal who is also an ambassador for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, says that "I feel unhappy because when the party was cancelled it meant that I, a disabled person, lost my right of expression." I think that she speaks for all the candiates and sums up their feelings quite precisely.
Do you think you can convince Cambodian government to accept the event after all?
I don't think once Big Brother has made up his mind that there is really any way back. Our only hope is - with the help of public opinion in Cambodia and the continued attention of the world media - hopefully over time to pressure the Government to reconsider this most ill-judged and dictatorial decision.
I am also still waiting for the myriad of international NGOs long established in Cambodia to raise their voices in support of human rights.