the complicated politics of boycotting brunei

After the Sultan of Brunei announced the introduction of Sharia Law this week, the international community has reacted by calling for boycotting his hotels. But is that the most useful way to call for change?

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07 April 2019, 11:48pm

Image via Pride in London.

This week the world watched in fury as the Sultan of Brunei delivered on his 2013 promise to implement Sharia law. The legislation essentially legalises torture: thieves can have their limbs amputated, women can be flogged violently for terminating their pregnancy or killed for committing adultery, and LGBT people can be stoned to death for sodomy.

International backlash has been swift. The likes of Elton John and George Clooney quickly called for a boycott of the ten Dorchester Collection hotels, all of which are owned by the Sultan. Protests have been organised by activists worldwide and venues have been stormed, a UK digital petition has racked up 40,000 signatures and TfL has pulled all tourist advertisements for Brunei. Similar calls to boycott came in 2013 and 2014; they did succeed in significantly delaying the rollout of the more extreme laws, giving us a promising indication that international pressure actually does work.

Still, it’s hard not to feel powerless. Most of us are familiar with the concept of allyship -- essentially the idea that we can leverage our privilege to help people more marginalised than we are. The internet has made it easier than ever to be an ally by allowing us to sign digital petitions, send money to people in need and hold bigots to account with mass pressure.

That being said, knee-jerk activism can sometimes do more harm than good -- and in the case of Brunei, there’s a lot to consider. “As much as we all feel the urge to do something in a moment of emergency, it’s important to first listen to the affected communities and to follow their lead,” says activist Mathias Wasik. He’s the Senior Campaigns Manager of All Out, an international NGO which partners with LGBTQ+ activists in countries whose laws still persecute them, or in some cases threaten their lives. “What we might consider a beneficial action -- like calling for a boycott of the country’s industries -- might easily cause backlash and hurt people on the ground.”

All Out’s approach is to ask victims what they need and then make arrangements to support them. “Once this work is done we can show international solidarity through signing petitions, sharing the news online and joining protests,” he continues, underlining the importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of the affected communities.

But seeking out these victims isn’t always easy. Brunei’s LGBTQ+ community faces huge pressure to keep itself hidden, to the extent that a 2011 research study managed to attract only 29 participants, four of whom weren’t natives. Rare interviews given to media outlets over the last few days have included anonymous subjects for obvious reasons, and any further research by NGOs requires funding which many of them just don’t have. It’s a double-edged sword: we need to listen to the people affected and avoid speaking on their behalf, but to do so could mean thrusting them out of the shadows and inadvertently making them a target.

British attempts to revoke anti-LGBTQ+ laws have also been met with skepticism and accusations of “neo-colonialism” in the recent past. Before the new punishments were introduced, sodomy could be legally persecuted under anti-gay laws which date back to Brunei’s stint as a British Protectorate. It’s one of 36 Commonwealth countries which retains some version of discriminatory legislation first introduced by British colonial officers, a fact that Theresa May has said she “deeply regrets” in a bid to urge leaders to revoke the laws.

That’s not to say that politicians can’t make a difference; in fact, writing to your local MP is one of the most effective ways to show solidarity. Labour MP Fabian Hamilton this week called for Brunei to be suspended from the Commonwealth; he saw it as an act of protest against laws which he described as “abhorrent”. An online petition has since emerged to fight for full expulsion. He explained further to i-D: “This persecution flies in the face of the values that we, in Britain and across the Commonwealth, rightly uphold. “[It] must be confronted with action, not just words.” Basically, it might have more of an impact than you think.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International outlines that contacting your country’s Brunei Embassy could also make a difference. Like All Out, the NGO makes a point of underlining that “certain types of public attention may endanger activists and communities within Brunei”, and that the best way to approach the situation is to “respectfully express your concerns regarding the Penal Code and its harmful impact upon affected women, children, LGBTQI individuals and religious minorities.” It’s also important to remember that adultery will also be punished by stoning, and that women are much more likely to be scapegoated and killed.

Embassies and MPs can make a difference, but politics play a complicated role in the extent to which Parliament can hold the Sultan accountable. Foreign Office Minister of State, Mark Field, was rightfully condemned for describing him as “a great friend of the UK”, but the fact is that ties between the countries have remained strong since Brunei gained independence in 1984. MPs may condemn the laws, but the fact is that our ties to certain countries limit the extent to which we can truly pressure them to make change ---- we saw this recently, when politicians expressed outrage that Saudi soldiers were killing Yemeni civilians in the brutal, ongoing war. Though Britain arms these soldiers.

None of this is to say that protest doesn’t work; more that politics is complicated and we need to take a considered approach. Twitter has been flooded with jokes about the Dorchester boycott which hint at the obvious questions: who the hell can afford a £5000 suite anyway? And is changing your wildly expensive hotel stay really the most effective form of activism? Others have called for a complete boycott of countries which persecute LGBTQ+ people, which might make sense if we consider them only as holiday destinations. But, as some Twitter users have pointed out, for queer people with family ties to these countries, the link is not easily severed.

If the argument is that a few Hollywood stars cancelling their reservations will bankrupt the Sultan, it obviously doesn’t hold weight -- oil is far more lucrative than the hotel industry anyway, and it’s been argued that withdrawing business altogether could result in innocent people losing their jobs. This is unlikely for various reasons, but this reasoning does highlight that our actions can have consequences -- and sometimes they aren’t the ones we intend.

What we do know is that protest has stalled the Sultan in the past, and there’s nothing to suggest that it won’t again. “It’s critically important that this outcry is heard around the world,” says Phil Robertson, the Deputy State of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “People who might be at risk of these punishments [need to] know not to travel to Brunei or transit through the Sultanate -- and the pressure will help ensure political asylum for Bruneians fleeing the country.” It’s worth noting that this would depend on the Home Office to enact justice -- and its track record of refugee treatment in particular isn’t exactly great. Still, Robertson has a point: the more we speak, the more likely authorities are to listen to us.

It can be hard not to feel overwhelmed by this situation, especially when Brunei is far from the only country whose punishments of vulnerable people are draconian at best and torturous at worst. But we can’t lose hope, and we definitely can’t sit back and merely point fingers at the people who are trying to make change. There are always small things we can all do: amplify the conversation and keep it going long past the first headlines; sign online petitions; take to the streets; lobby MPs; donate to charities like All Out and Amnesty, which have pledged to help victims. Keep the pressure up, and change can happen.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.