In the months leading up to the Miss Universe pageant, most contestants were busy making promotional films and rehearsing for their moment in the limelight. Thuzar Wint Lwin of Myanmar was on the streets of Yangon, protesting against the country’s brutal army.
As the military used increasingly deadly force to crush rallies opposing its February coup, she visited the relatives of those who had been killed, donating her savings. Online, she raised awareness of military violence, despite the risk of retaliation.
On Thursday, Thuzar Wint Lwin appeared on stage in Florida, where she sent a powerful message to viewers around the world. Striding out in the traditional dress of the Chin ethnic minority, she unfurled a banner that read: “Pray for Myanmar.”
“Our people are dying and being shot by the military every day,” she said in a video message filmed for the pageant.
Thuzar Wint Lwin, 22, had been determined to take part in the competition, she said on Facebook, because she wanted to use her platform to “let the world know of our country and how our freedom, human rights and right to live are threatened”. She managed to pass safely through Yangon airport earlier this month.
She won the prize for best national costume, for a traditional dress worn by Chin women in north-west Myanmar. The dress, which features intricate weaving, and is worn with a crown of feathers adorned with beads, is associated with the Khwang Cawi festival, when tributes are paid to courageous and admirable women.
Dr Sasa, a spokesperson for Myanmar’s national unity government, which was set up by pro-democracy politicians, including some who have been detained, praised Thuzar Wint Lwin “for her bravery in the face of so many obstacles”. Her actions had helped raise awareness of “the plight of Myanmar’s brave citizens under the hand of these cruel terrorist murderers,” he said in a statement.
Over recent days, thousands of people in Myanmar’s Chin state have been forced to flee their homes, following escalating fighting between the military and activists opposed to the coup, who have formed the Chinland Defence Force.
The group used traditional hunting guns to fight the army in the town of Mindat, while the military fired artillery shells into the town and used helicopters to bring in extra troops. Chinland Defence Force told Reuters earlier this week that it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said providing humanitarian assistance to people fleeing the violence, or those still in the town, was challenging due to the insecurity.
Thuzar Wint Lwin at a protest against the military regime in Yangon, February. Photograph: Courtesy of Thuzar Wint Lwin/Facebook
The US condemned the military’s use of violence against civilians, describing it as “a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold on to power”. It has tightened sanctions against the ruling generals, placing more members of the junta on a financial blacklist.
More than 800 people have been killed by the junta, according to the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Thousands more have been detained, including elected politicians, pro-democracy activists and protesters.
The military has also cracked down on cultural figures who have criticised the coup, announcing wanted lists on military TV in the evenings. Celebrities – from poets to beauty bloggers and influencers – are among those sought or held by security forces.
Many are taken during night raids, when security forces stalk the streets and search the homes of anyone they suspect of supporting protesters. There have been repeated reports of torture inside detention facilities.
It is not clear where Thuzar Wint Lwin will stay after the pageant. There were unconfirmed reports on social media that the Myanmar regime had issued an arrest warrant since her Miss Universe protest.
In an online video message, she said: “Myanmar deserves democracy, and we will keep fighting and I also hope that the international community will give us the help that we desperately need.”
Thuzar Wint Lwin was not the only contestant to make a political point at the Miss Universe pageant. Bernadette Belle Ong, who represented Singapore, walked on to the stage wearing a cape in the colours of her country’s flag then turned to reveal the message painted on the back, “Stop Asian Hate”, in a reference to rising numbers of racist attacks on Asian Americans.
Lola de los Santos, the Miss Universe contestant for Uruguay, showed support for LGBTQ+ people with a rainbow outfit and a skirt that read: “No more hate, violence, rejection, discrimination.”
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