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Khmer Rouge refugee a rare ‘Miss Cambodia’


Phanith Sovann, the Cambodian-American who will compete in an international beauty contest next year. Photograph: supplied

A Cambodian-American singer who was nearly killed as a child by the Khmer Rouge will be the first Miss Cambodia to compete in an international beauty pageant since 2006.

Phanith Sovann has been selected as an entrant in next year’s Queen of the Universe 2013, an annual beauty contest in California.

Sovann, born in a refugee camp in Kao-I-Dang, Thailand in 1989 to young parents who, orphaned by the Khmer Rouge, escaped to the border, said her family was lucky to have survived.

They were forced to run and hide from Thai soldiers who raided the camps periodically, forcing refugees who did not have permits back to the killing fields of Cambodia.

“My mother always said that my family almost died many times,” she said.

At the age of two, Sovann and her family moved to the US with nothing but a few bags of clothes. They lived in a small garage in California, where Sovann’s parents encouraged her to learn her native tongue, Khmer.

By the time she was six, after performing her first solo in church, her parents enrolled her in piano classes, where she learned how to read notes.

By the age of eight, she had taught herself to play music by ear and tabulate it, and wrote her first song.

In 2004, Sovann won the international John Lennon Songwriting contest, and recorded an original song titled My American Dream.

Sovann is humble about her chances of success at next year’s contest, but believes that taking part is a first step in representing Cambodian beauty.

She said: “I want the world to see that Cambodia is marvelous in so many ways. I have not seen Cambodia represented in an international pageant for a while, so even if I’m not perfect, I want to take that first step.”

The last Miss Cambodia to compete in an international beauty contest was Sun Srey Mom, who competed in Miss World in 2006. She was the first in more than 50 years to vie for the coveted title.

Plans for beauty pageants inside Cambodia have run into trouble in recent years. In 2006, Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled a Miss Cambodia contest, saying he would not allow the event to go ahead until poverty had been more than halved.

Three years later, a beauty pageant for victims of Cambodia’s millions of landmines was cancelled after the government denounced the event as an insult to disabled people.

Entrants to the competition, which will be held in California have to raise a minumum of $3,000 sponsorship.

Phanin has been given a letter of support from the Cambodian ambassador in the US, at home to back her campaign.

In a letter of support, backing her application, Hem Heng, ambassador of the Kingdom of Cambodia in the US, said: “Your efforts to represent as Miss Cambodia is a brave commitment and a big gesture in your life, which I am sure is appreciated by all Cambodians back home as well as Cambodian-Americans here who have always thought of their native country Cambodia no matter how far away they were compelled to live due to the necessity in one’s life.”

Sovann said she hoped to set an example to young women.

“My hope in doing all of this is to inspire young women and girls all over the world to pursue their dreams. I want everyone to know that you don’t have to have a title to become an ambassador of love, hope, and peace to the world.

“I want people to know that you don’t have to be the tallest, or the most beautiful to represent your country. You just have to have a good heart, compassion, vision, and determination.”

On the day of the event there will be an evening-wear round, a swimsuit competition and each delegate will be questioned. Judges will pick a top 10 to go through to the next round.

To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Kimsoeurn at



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