With a whiff of controversy and not a bikini in sight, a US-educated business graduate was selected as the first Miss Universe contestant to represent Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Moe Set Wine will take her place on stage at the global beauty pageant in Moscow next month, reflecting dramatic political and social changes in the former junta-ruled nation which last fielded a Miss Universe contender in 1961.
“I feel like now I am part of the history and I feel like a soldier that is doing something for the country and my people,” she said after winning the trophy late on Thursday.
“I’m still in shock. I still can’t believe it. I feel really happy, because now I get the chance to represent my country,” added the 25-year-old, who has a BA in business marketing from California Lutheran University.
According to the contest website, Moe Set Wine’s ambition is to “obtain self-accomplishment and be able to help/give the people in need”.
Hemlines are rising in the nation formerly known as Burma as it opens up to the world after decades of iron-fisted military rule ended in 2011.
President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has released hundreds of political prisoners, welcomed Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party into parliament and scrapped draconian censorship measures.
But while many young people are embracing the fashion revolution, not everyone approves of scanty dress.
When racy shots of one model wearing a two-piece swimsuit appeared online a few years ago, she received abuse and threats.
So the Miss Universe hopefuls were careful not to bare any midriff in the swimsuit section, while long dresses were the garment of choice elsewhere in the show.
“My personal view is that the competition presents a good image of our country, but if you look at what they wear, it is not what a lot of people here like,” Deputy Culture Minister Than Swe told AFP.
Songwriter Saw Khuse, who was one of the judges, said he was “very proud” to take part in the event.
“After 50 years, I am very glad that Myanmar has been invited to participate in this kind of competition,” he added.
Myanmar’s traditional dress, which is still mandatory in high schools, universities and most state workplaces, is the demure “longyi” — a sheet of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist and stretching to the feet.
But the younger generation, especially young urban women, are increasingly shunning the national garb and embracing unconventional alternatives as they brush aside concerns about morals and modesty.
The country has succumbed to the “Korean wave” — the South Korean cultural invasion that has flooded much of Asia and the wider world with its soap operas, films, “K-pop” and clothing.
“Myanmar people dared not wear clothes like this in the past. Now things are improving, and people dare to wear things, so as a designer I can create what I like. So I’m glad things are changing,” said Htay Htay Tin, who designed the contestants’ outfits.
What about the swimsuits?
“I wouldn’t dare to wear one, but they are part of the competition,” she said