Braving a controversial “swimwear” round and questions about Tibet’s ”freedom struggle”, a sociology student born in India has won the annual Miss Tibet beauty pageant held by Tibetans living in exile.

Organiser Lobsang Wangyal says the pageant is not a political event but a celebration of “beautiful, elegant, brave and modern Tibetan girls”.

But in truth this “pageant with a difference” is a mix of glitzy entertainment, hype and the slightly incongruous promotion of the Tibetan refugees’ cause—independence from China.

“I have a huge responsibility, being Miss Tibet is not easy,” said 21-year-old winner Tsering Chungtak as fireworks lit up the night sky on Sunday over McLeodganj, home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees.

”I have to represent my country on the international stage.”

And Chungtak wasted no time, appealing for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyina, believed to have been held under house arrest by the Chinese since 1985, when he was a six-year-old boy, three days after the Dalai Lama recognised him as the incarnation of Tibet’s second highest religious leader, the Panchen Lama.

“We all know the Panchen Lama is the world’s youngest political prisoner,” she said, dressed in traditional Tibetan costume for the final round of the event. “I am going to raise my voice and I want people to support me.”

The Miss Tibet contest, now in its fifth year, has never been short of controversy. Unsurprisingly it annoys the Chinese, and a previous winner had to pull out of beauty pageants in Zimbabwe and Malaysia last year after Chinese objections.

It also irks some conservative Buddhists.

The prime minister of Tibet’s “government-in-exile” once accused it of “aping Western culture” and against Buddhist values. Women’s groups are unhappy with the swimwear parade, thrown open to limited public viewing this year for the first time.

Just five girls took part in this year’s event—a sixth was forced to pull out after objections from the high-altitude Tibetan unit of the Indian army where she serves.

They included a call-centre worker living in India, a fashion student from Nepal and a beautician from Canada, as well as 20-year Metok Lhanze, who fled Tibet two years ago after spending more than a month as a Chinese political prisoner.

The girls glided down the catwalk in Western evening dresses before reappearing in traditional attire—red, green, blue and gold silk with heavy amber, coral and turquoise jewellery.

There were a few glitches. Fireworks interrupted Wangyal’s opening speech, a mouse ran across the stage on Saturday, and rowdier young men in the 1,500-strong crowd jeered during the girls’ earnest attempts to talk politics.

But the enthusiasm of the participants seemed to win the day.

“I absolutely loved it “ said Miss Washington State, Kristen Eddings, visiting a Tibetan children’s home and roped in at the last minute as a judge. “These young women really do want to make a difference and it is very good for them to have a stage.”

Eddings, a contender for the Miss America crown, said the contest was “so drastically different to anything I have ever seen before. But I liked that little bit of spontaneity.”

It also got a blessing of sorts from the Dalai Lama himself.

“If people want it, why not?,” he told journalists earlier this month. “But I think it should be not only female but male also. Mr Tibet, handsome, then it would be more fair,” he added, with his characteristic chuckle.