Not Exactly a Hunger Strike

In 1989, I found myself on a plane belonging to Hassanal Bolkiah.

There was a pilot’s strike in Australia, and I had earned a trip overseas for selling many printers. This involved getting to and from Sydney, and with Qantas and Ansett on strike, our Government made other arrangements.

On the way to Sydney, I took a C-130 transport plane provided by the RAAF. We sat in webbing along the fuselage. Lunch was a box containing a tin of tuna in lemon juice, two crackers, an orange and an orange juice. (only a person with a citrus allergy would remember that 20+years later) The toilet was a hole in the wall, around which a plastic sheet could be held up by burly airmen. I ate the crackers and crossed my legs.

On the way back, I had a choice of 4 splendid meals, and visited the bathroom several times to marvel at the gold tapware and avail myself of the 5 different liquid soaps on tap.

Yes, the Australia Government had rented some aircraft from Mr Bolkiah, AKA Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan dan Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Brunei Darussalam and who holds the posts of prime minister, minister of defence, minister of finance, head of Islam, head of customs, supreme commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and the inspector general of the Royal Brunei Police Force.

He is most commonly known as The Sultan of Brunei, and with $20bn, there are no end of people lining up to give him more titles.


Skip forward to 2012, and Lady Devotea and I visited The Dorchester in London. I blogged about it at the time, and it was a sublime experience.

What I did not know at the time was that the aforementioned Sultan had bought it in 1981. His Dorchester Group includes the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.

He’s also been busy in the intervening years, for example, passing a law in 2006 that said he was infallable. I guess if the prime minister, minister of defence, minister of finance, head of Islam, head of customs, supreme commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and the inspector general of the Royal Brunei Police Force are all in agreement, that should not be hard.

And in his wisdom, he’s set about bringing Sharia Law to Brunei. To quote Wikipedia:

Bolkiah is implementing a Sharia law penal code that includes death by stoning, the severing of limbs, and flogging for crimes in Brunei such as abortions, adultery and homosexual acts. The Sultan himself, together with his family members are exempted from the Sharia Law.

Now, Sharia Law is a form of religious law, and it is quite similar to many other religious codes. Promulgators of it believe that religious law should trump other forms of law, such as civil or criminal, and they do not believe in what many people believe to be an important principle, the separation of church and state.

There are many other religions that offer similar viewpoints and there are many religious leaders who would happily adopt the principal that an old man with a book written hundreds of years ago of dubious provenance is all he needs to inflict suffering upon others and feel righteous and self-important about it. It doesn’t matter what that book is, having the book and the moral authority is all they need.

As an atheist, I find all religions equally odd, and so I can’t really comment. I certainly respect people’s right to believe in God, Allah, fairies, Cybermen*,Vishnu, Buddha** or His Majestic and Glorious Majesty the Giant Goat of Joy***.

The penal code described above is, however, barbaric. It is cruel and is nothing more than the sadly inbuilt savagery that significant proportions of the human race have struggled to expunge from their basic make-up, while others malevolently embrace it.

It is also the most hypocritical action ever. To exempt his own family makes him a huge laughing stock, or would if it were not so serious.

So, it comes down to this: to take afternoon at The Dorchester or to visit another hotel in the group is to support this regime. Now, a celebrity boycott has targeted the group.

On CBS News Dorchester Collection CEO Christopher Cowdray said the campaign to boycott their group was unfair, pointing out that many people deal with Saudi Arabian companies (with a similar regime) and that many of the protesters where wearing clothes made possible by human rights abuses.

Despite the fact what he says is true, it  does look awfully like Pontius Pilate’s washing of his hands.

First raised by Stephen Fry and Ellen DeGeneres, the celebrity boycott of these premises is an impressive flexing of the power of press. No doubt all of the premises have suffered somewhat.

Sadly, I think it’s true that whilst the Sultan enjoys his $20b and his 1800-room palace, the real losers will be the minimum wage workers who work at these places.

But I’d like to think they can find jobs at other places who might benefit from not being boycotted by famous faces and thought leaders.

So, looking at the pros and cons, Lady Devotea and I will state here, on the record that we will not re-visit the splendid Dorchester (or any other parts of The Dorchester Group) until either the ownership changes or the laws introduced a month ago in Brunei are repealed.

I urge you to examine your own conscience and join us if you wish.


*  I really, really hope not

** OK, so he was an actual person

*** Send me $75 for Holy Book of Goatisms and license to preach.


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