Surekha Ragavan
Apr 12, 2019

Sharia law controversy: “Tourism boycott in Brunei will not help anyone”

"The solution that celebrities and the international community are proposing will more than likely be ineffective."

A couple gets their photo taken in Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan
A couple gets their photo taken in Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan

The headlines around Brunei in the last couple of weeks have been dreadful. Homosexuality—already illegal in Brunei—will be met with capital punishment by way of stoning, a law that will be applied to Muslims in the country. 

The news was met with strong backlash from those in Asia as well as the West, where celebrities such as George Clooney and Ellen Degeneres have called for a boycott of overseas hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei. These hotels include Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Dorchester in London, and Le Meurice in Paris.

Clooney said in a statement: “Every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels, we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery”. Some of the hotels in question have withdrawn from social media.

Following the international outcry, many have talked about boycotting Brunei altogether as a destination. Royal Brunei Airlines, for instance, has seen dwindling bookings while clients have begun to pull out of commercial partnerships. One such partnerhsip was with global agency STA Travel, which have stopped selling packages with the airline. 

John Lee, a journalist who spent 19 years in Brunei and who currently resides in South Korea, told CEI that the overseas hotel boycott will have “minimal to no impact on the law within Brunei”. He added that while the solution that celebrities and the international community are proposing will more than likely be ineffective, it's clear that they have helped to raise awareness of what is going on.

“A similar [hotel] boycott took place in 2014,” he said. “At the time, one of the better-known Hollywood celebrities who led the boycott was Jay Leno. The boycott didn't work then, and there is little reason to believe that it will work now.”

A demonstrator in Beverly Hills, California holds a sign about the boycott of overseas hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei

Despite that, the tourism share within Brunei’s GDP is negligible. “Businesses there are competing over what are essentially dollar scraps," Lee said. "And none of them have a say in what kinds of laws are passed. In more democratic nations, individuals and groups may lobby and petition the government to pass or abolish laws that are favorable and unfavorable to them, respectively.

“Such a mechanism does not exist in Brunei. On the other hand, the Royal Family's wealth is so immense that a travel boycott wouldn't affect them in the slightest. In short, a travel boycott would punish innocent people.”

Instead of a travel boycott, the international community concerned about the plight of locals must keep a close eye on what comes of this law, according to Lee. This means that they must take a stance that the implementation of this law cannot and will not be tolerated.

“It is unlikely that the Sultan ever planned to implement the law in the first place. Brunei has not executed anyone since it gained independence in 1984, and it is unlikely to change that practice now. That being said, international vigilance will serve as an extra layer of assurance that the law will not actually be implemented,” he said.

Just as importantly, the international community should also be welcome to providing refuge for LGBTQ people from Brunei. “Those who feel unwelcome and afraid in their home country can choose to emigrate, but those emigrants must be welcomed by other nationals,” he said. “That is the most humane and effective course of action people can pursue.”


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