There she is, Miss Tibet

From exile in India, five Tibetan women compete – in swimsuits –to raise the profile of their political cause.

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Cold rain pelted this former British hill station last Friday morning, threatening to cancel one of the town's more provocative annual social and political events: the swimsuit round of the Miss Tibet beauty pageant. But the sun broke through, and at 1 o'clock, right on time, the five contestants were primped, poised, and ready. Only one small problem: no judges.

Two-and-a half hours later, the organizer of the event, Lobsang Wangyal, a photographer who funds the event out of his own pocket, managed to round up a few bewildered Indians, a Frenchman, and an American to be judges. With the pop music pumping, the five young women beat a path to an improvised stage – a small hotel pool deck – past a gaggle of photographers.

For the first time in the pageant's five year history the swimwear competition was open to the public, and about a dozen young Tibetan men ogled and snapped away. "It's very good to promote awareness about Tibet," said one observer, Tenzin Tenam, without a hint of irony.

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While some Americans may associate beauty pageants as passé events presided over by B-list celebrities, Tibetans living in exile are using this pageant as a way to bring attention to their homeland. It is certainly one of the more unusual tactics the Tibetan refugee community is adopting to counter China.

In the process, the contestants are also pushing the boundaries of acceptable social etiquette in traditionally conservative Tibetan culture, where most grown women wear ankle-length dresses. "It's important for young Tibetan women to bring Tibetan culture towards modernity," says the director, Mr. Wangyal, dressed in a gleaming white suit and cowboy boots.

Since a failed bid for independence in 1951, China has occupied Tibet and placed tight restrictions on basic freedoms, beating and imprisoning Tibetan activists. More than 100,000 Tibetans live in India, many in nearby Dharamsala, home of the Dali Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetans, and Tibet's government-in-exile. Thousands more come every year.

One such arrival is 20-year-old Metok Lhanze, the only contestant born inside Tibet. She fled to India in 1999 by trekking for almost a month over high-altitude mountain passes. In 2002, when she received news that her father was ill, she says that she and sneaked back in, but her father had died by the time she arrived. Because she had spent time in India, the Chinese in Tibet were suspicious of her; they arrested her and she spent a month in jail.

"Everybody needs to contribute something to the Tibetan struggle," said Metok through a translator. "If I win the pageant I want to raise my voice about the Tibetan freedom movement."

On Saturday, hundreds of Tibetans squeezed into an auditorium for the dance and oral presentations. The crowd roared with approval when one contestant proclaimed, "I believe in a destiny – I believe one day Tibet will be free!"

Besides the title and a prize of about $2,200, Miss Tibet will go on to represent Tibet in international pageants; or at least she will try. At a competition in Harare, Zimbabwe, last year the Chinese Embassy pressured the event's organizers to give Miss Tibet a choice of wearing a sash reading 'Miss Tibet-China' or opting out, according to Wangyal. She withdrew. The same happened in Malaysia, for Miss Tourism World.

A surprise judge graced the final event on Sunday: Miss Washington State 2006, Kristen Eddings, happened to be here on a two-week mission with the organization Bridges to Understanding (www.bridgesweb.org), working with Tibetan schoolchildren. "This is a wonderful event," said Miss Eddings. "This is a great opportunity to empower young women in a culture that is so unique."

Sunday night's crowd swelled to more than 2,000. Families with little children, Tibetan monks, and teenagers sporting American hip-hop attire, arrived for the show. The five contestants presented eveningwear, traditional Tibetan dress, and answered questions from the judges. When contestants hesitated in answering questions or wobbled on stage in their elaborate costumes, the audience jeered.

Close to midnight the time arrived for presenting the winner. There were hugs, tears, fireworks, confetti, music – and one tiara – as Tsering Chungtak from New Delhi, came away with the title and the check. "I have no words to express my feelings," said the new Miss Tibet. "I have a huge responsibility for my people. I would like to make my country proud of me."

And Miss Washington's take on it all? "Fascinating," she said diplomatically. "So drastically different from anything else. Something I would encourage every lady running for Miss America to come see next year."

She is not the only high-profile supporter of the event. Last week, when a reporter asked the Dali Lama whether he approved of Miss Tibet, he replied with a smile and a guffaw: "Why not?" His only criticism was that it was one-sided. "I think there should be a Mr. Tibet."

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