2015 ethical travel guide to South East Asia

Tourists 12

It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of tourists do not choose their holiday destinations based primarily – or even partly – on ethical criteria. Even during the darkest days of repression in Burma (Myanmar), hundreds of thousands of visitors still went there every year.

We believe strongly that tourism can be force for good in the world, but for that to be the case, people need to travel with their eyes wide open. It is our hope that this guide will help inform travellers about the ethical strengths and failings of the ten countries which make up Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations).

In deciding our rankings, we have considered a whole range of criteria, including democratic vibrancy; freedom of belief, whether religious or political; levels of economic, racial and gender inequality; official corruption; and care for the environment. (See Main sources below for more details)

Overall, we have given as much weight to the direction of movement – whether the situation is getting better or worse – as to the present reality. Independent travel has taught us that it often the journey which is just as important as the destination.

1. Indonesia (8/10)

Indonesia (ethical)

Less than two decades ago, this vast island nation, was ruled by one of Asia’s most ruthless and corrupt kleptocracies. But since the end of the brutal Suharto era in 1998, Indonesia has made incredible progress, and now heads our ethical rankings by a clear margin.

What is more, the election of Joko Widodo – or Jokowi as he is affectionately known – as the country’s seventh president in July 2014, promises even better things to come. It is not just Jokowi’s many virtues which fill us with optimism, but the way in which the military/political/business elite has accepted the democratic will of the people.

Of course, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is still far from perfect in many areas, including economic inequality, religious freedom, environmental protection, and corruption. But overall, we believe that ethical travellers can visit Indonesia with a relatively clear conscience.

2. Philippines (6.5/10)

Courtesy: Eric Montalban via Wikimedia Commons

The relatively high ranking for South East Asia’s only Christian-majority nation reflects the encouraging progress it has made over recent decades in several major respects, from judicial independence, to freedom of speech.

Democracy has become ever more entrenched since the People Power Revolution of 1986, despite multiple challenges, most notably several attempted military coups, Islamic terrorism and a rapacious elite.

A consistent feature of this sprawling island nation – and one which bodes well for the future – is the bravery ordinary people have shown in standing up for their rights. We believe that the Philippines presents few moral issues for the ethical traveller.

3. Malaysia (5/10)

Malaysia (ethical)

When the Federation of Malaya was granted independence in 1957 it was a beacon of democracy, good governance and religious tolerance. But six decades of misrule by the country’s corrupt, self-serving political, business and social elite, has taken a heavy toll.

In almost every important area, from electoral fraud to women’s rights, from human trafficking to the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, the pace of deterioration is actually accelerating. 2013 and 2014 were terrible years for Malaysia’s ethical standing; 2015 looks set to be even worse.

Already surpassed by Indonesia and the Philippines, Malaysia could soon fall behind Burma and Cambodia too, something which would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Overall, this Muslim-majority nation presents increasing challenges for the ethical traveller.

4. Laos (4/10)

Laos (ethical)

We must admit to a massive soft spot for Laos and its people. If these rankings were based purely on sentiment then this diminutive country would be top of our rankings, with a score of ten out of ten.

Unfortunately, certain undeniable facts do have to be taken into account, including a marked lack of political freedom, or an even moderately free press. The treatment of some ethnic minorities, most notably the Hmong, also leaves something to be desired.

However, with its unique blend of Buddhism and state socialism, Laos is probably the least authoritarian one-party state in the world. And it could teach some of its richer, supposedly democratic Asean neighbours, a thing or two about tolerance, equality and kindness.

4. Singapore (4/10)

Singapore (ethical)

As South East Asia’s most advanced economy, Singapore is used to lording it over its less developed neighbours. But we would argue that this superiority complex is as unjustified, as it is offensive.

Singapore has effectively been a one-party state since its ejection from Malaysia in 1965. Throw in the denial of basic human rights, such freedom of speech and freedom of association, and it is apparent just how morally backward this tiny country is.

What is more, Singaporean businesses are complicit in major ethical problems around the region, such as corruption, illicit capital outflows, environmental destruction, and the persecution of indigenous peoples.

6. Burma (Myanmar) (3.5/10)

Burma (ethical)

As recently as 2007, unarmed protesters were being shot dead on the streets of Rangoon (Yangon), thousands of political opponents were in jail, the media was completely unfree, and optimism had never been in shorter supply.

Fast forward to 2014, and this fascinating country has changed so much for the better that it is barely recognisable. Although some have questioned whether the Burmese Spring has run out of steam, we are hopeful that it is simply pausing for breath.

In preferring to see the cup as a quarter full, than three-quarters empty, we are still aware of many challenges facing the ethical traveller. But as long as tourist dollars are spent as responsibly as possible, the positives of a visit to Burma, far outweigh the negatives.

6. Cambodia (3.5/10)

Cambodia (ethical)

Cambodia has made significant progress over recent years, but it has yet to receive much credit. While this would be unfair for any country, it is particularly so for one which is still recovering from decades of conflict.

That Cambodia has any kind of democracy at all, after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, is a marvel in itself. The most recent elections, in 2013, were certainly flawed, but they still resulted in a much more balanced parliament.

If Cambodia continues to make progress in key ethical areas, then it will not be long before it overtakes both Singapore and Malaysia. We believe that responsible tourism can play a big part in helping to achieve that.

8. Vietnam (2.5/10)

Vietnam (ethical)

Vietnam is a somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to ethics. On the one hand, it is a one-party state, where political freedom is heavily curtailed. On the other hand, its people are assured fundamental rights, such as food, shelter, education and healthcare.

So far, so state socialist. But Vietnam has an economy which is effectively capitalistic. And in terms of personal life choices too, such as being gay, Vietnam is more free than many of its supposedly democratic neighbours in Asean.

When judging Vietnam, it is important for the ethical traveller to remember how much the country and its people suffered during the wars of liberation against first the French, and then the Americans.

9. Thailand (2/10)

In normal circumstances, the Land of Smiles, would be sat near the top of our ethical rankings, with its long history of democracy, tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, gender equality, press freedom, and liberal attitudes to sexuality.

But the military coup in May 2014 – just the latest example of Thailand’s elite overriding the democratic will of the people – has deepened worries about when this Buddhist-majority country will be free again.

Add in perennial issues, such as corruption, high levels of poverty, human trafficking, modern slavery, and the illegal trade in endangered species, and the ethical traveller may well consider boycotting Thailand until democracy is restored.

10. Brunei (1/10)

Courtesy: Daniel Weiss via Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy: Daniel Weiss via Wikimedia Commons

We struggle to understand why any tourists visit Brunei at all, except perhaps to transit from one part of Malaysian Borneo to another. But quite apart from having no visitor attractions to speak of, and being the most expensive country in South East Asia, it is also morally bankrupt.

Brunei is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, which should be reason alone to boycott this tiny Muslim-majority country. But even the denial of every basic human right you can imagine is not enough for Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

In May 2014, a strict form of Sharia law (the Islamic penal code) came into force in Brunei, including barbaric punishments such as stoning to death for adultery and homosexuality. It should be noted that the Sultan, his family, and his cronies, are not subject to the new laws.

Main sources:

Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org) compiles international rankings for vital areas of human rights, such as political freedom (2014 Freedom in the World), and press freedom (2014 Freedom of the Press). Reporters Without Borders (http://en.rsf.org) is another reputable source of information on media freedom (2014 Press Freedom Index).

Major international human rights campaign groups include Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org); Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org); and Global Witness (http://new.globalwitness.org).

Transparency International (www.transparency.org) produces the most authoritative annual comparison of official corruption levels (2014 Corruption Perception Index). In terms of illicit outflows and money laundering, Global Financial Integrity (www.gfintegrity.org) is a great source of information.

The US State Department (www.state.gov) publishes a number of well-respected annual reports, on issues such as religious freedom (2013 International Religious Freedom Report), and human trafficking (2014 Trafficking in Persons Report). The Walk Free Foundation (www.walkfreefoundation.org) is a more contentious source of information on human trafficking, with a particular focus on modern slavery (2014 Global Slavery Index).

Finding international comparisons for the threat to indigenous peoples is rather more difficult, but Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org) is probably the best starting point. In terms of workers rights, the most comprehensive study (2014 Global Rights Index) is provided by the International Trade Union Confederation (www.ituc-csi.org).

Yale University (http://envirocenter.yale.edu) produces an annual  study of environmental protection, in respect to both human health and biodiversity (2014 Environmental Protection Index). Greenpeace International (www.greenpeace.org) is another good source of information on environmental issues.