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Miss Universe Bikini Pics prompt Uproar

BANGKOK – Miss Universe organizers scrambled this past week to calm a furor over photos of bikini-clad contestants posing near an ancient Buddhist temple in pageant host Thailand after the images infuriated religious leaders.

The photos, which showed beauty queens on a Bangkok river cruise with the famed Wat Arun, or “Temple of Dawn,” in the background, were swiftly removed from the pageant Web site.

But religious leaders and culture watchdogs are still upset, saying the episode violated traditional values and morality just days before a key Buddhist holiday.

“This is the time of Visakha Bucha when we are reminded of Lord Buddha’s teachings. But we have allowed this thing which will mark the country with sin for a long time,” Phra Thep Dilok, head of the National Center for Buddhism Promotion, told Reuters.

The chair of the Senate tourism committee, Suradech Yasawat, said the photos, which were splashed on the front pages of most Thai newspapers, had hurt the country’s image.

“It is completely inappropriate. When a contest is being held in Thailand, Thai traditions and culture should be respected,” he told the Thai News Agency.

About 90 percent of Thailand’s 63 million people are Buddhist and any slight against the religion can trigger a public outcry.

Last year, the director of the U.S. movie “Hollywood Buddha” apologized for offending Thais by sitting on the head of a Buddha image for an advertising poster. Thai Buddhists consider the head the most sacred part of the body and it is not to be touched.

And despite Bangkok’s hundreds of go-go bars and its racy reputation as the “anything goes” sex capital of Southeast Asia, many Thais are uncomfortable with public nudity.

Pageant president Paula Shugart said the temple incident was unfortunate and would not happen again.

“We knew that if we had any visits to the temple, we knew how the women had to dress. This happened to be out on the river and unfortunately it appeared in the background,” she told Reuters. “We would never, ever do anything to intentionally offend anyone here.”

The Miss Universe franchise is a partnership between real-estate mogul Donald Trump and U.S. television network NBC.

Shugart said video footage of the 81 Miss Universe hopefuls — who have rode elephants, toured temples and frolicked on beaches since arriving last week — would be vetted by the pageant’s Thai partners before the May 31 grand finale is broadcast worldwide. It screens in the United States on May 30.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who hopes the pageant will give Thailand’s tsunami-hit tourist industry a badly-needed boost, has urged Thais not to overreact.

Thailand has spent 265 million baht ($6.7 million) on hosting the event and expects to earn 3.2 billion baht ($80.4 million) in revenue from the pageant and other activities.

“I think they did not intend to insult Thai culture. They just wanted to shoot pictures of beautiful places but did not realize that the temple is sacred for Thais,” he said.

Some Thais are also wondering what the fuss is all about.

“We wanted to promote our tourism industry, right? If we want tourists to come to Thailand, then let them see it,” said a university student on an Internet chat site.



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