Here’s How You Can Protest Brunei’s Human Rights Abuses Beyond Boycotting The Dorchester Hotel

We have the opportunity to demand change right at our fingertips.

Brunei protest

by Georgia Aspinall |

As of today, sex between men in Brunei is punishable by stoning to death. The new punishments - based on sharia law – have been introduced by Sultan Hussanal Bolkiah, and have sparked international outrage.

The new penal code also includes lesbian sex, which is punishable by 40 strokes of the cane and/or maximum 10 years in jail. Public flogging is the punishment for abortion and amputation applies to theft. The death penalty applies to rape, robbery, adultery, sodomy and insult or defamation of the Prophet Muhammad.

While the sultan has not yet addressed the new laws to the press, he spoke publically about introducing ‘stronger’ Islamic teachings. ‘I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger,’ he said according to AFP news agency.

Applying mostly to Muslims- with previous reports stating that there will be some application to non-Muslims – the penal code is the second phase of a move towards complete Sharia Law in Brunei. In 2014, the sultan introduced Sharia law as part of a dual legal system alongside Common Law. He initially delayed the final two phases of the new penal code, which include amputation and stoning, until today.

According to Matthew Woolfe, founder of The Brunei Project, a human rights group, the delay had many economic reasons, as well as a need for the international outrage following the 2014 introduction to placate before introducing the second phase.

‘One theory is that it is a way for the government to strengthen its hold on power in the face of a declining economy that could potentially lead to some unrest in future,’ Woolfe told the BBC, ‘Connected to this is [Brunei's] interest in attracting more investment from the Muslim world, along with more Islamic tourists… this could be seen as one way of appealing to this market.’

In response to the laws, the underground LGBT community in Brunei has expressed intense fear and various international supporters of their human rights have come out in protest. Asking people to boycott sultan-owned hotels across Europe including The Dorchester, Coworth Park and 45 Park Lane in the UK, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John and George Clooney are among a host of celebrities calling for change.

And while it’s undoubtedly noble – or at least, better than nothing - to stop funding hotels that line the pockets of the Sultan, it’s also a drop in the ocean to his net worth given he is one of the world’s richest men and has a personal fortune of $20 billion. Exporting oil and gas are by far the largest contributors to this. Coupled with the fact many of us couldn’t actually afford to stay at these hotels, the boycott can only largely raise the profile of the human rights abuses in Brunei rather damage the sultan himself. In fact, after the last Hollywood boycott in 2014, our own Royal Family visited the hotels soon after.

So what else can we do to protest the new laws? Given Brunei has an ‘excellent’ relationship with the UK according to Mark Field, the UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific it may be more effective to demand a response from our government as to why we continue to maintain trade, defence and education relations with a country promoting so many human rights abuses.

In fact, according to a government press release Field stated that the ‘UK’s bilateral relationship with Brunei was in excellent shape, and he was excited to learn about new opportunities to develop it further’. Perhaps then, it makes sense that we write to our MPs asking why we maintain this relationship, and demand they put it to the House for debate about our future relations with Brunei.

Historically, refusing to trade with countries that practice human rights abuses can prove a motivating factor in stopping them. But alas, it has wider repercussions than we could ever get into here. Of course, it's not the only way to re-evaulate our trade relationship with Brunei. There have been various studies by human rights organisations on the different approaches to foreign relations when one country is practicing human rights abuses- that don't involve cutting all trade. There are carrot and stick approaches - for example granting tariff reductions - that have proven more effective, pragmatic responses that may not be entirely what we want but achieve the ultimate goal.

Essentially, it’s a much wider conversation that the government ought to be having when discussing foreign relations with Brunei. And right now, the UK government doesn’t seem to be at all. And until we ask, through our MPs who are literally there to serve our wants and needs, how can we know they will do it? Boycotting hotels, raising the profile of issues is important, but when we can demand that the people we elect ask the questions of those in power whom have the means and range to alter the way the Brunei monarchy treats its citizens, it’s important that we do.

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