Will the UK continue its military support for Brunei’s shari’a regime?


Generally speaking, in the world of foreign affairs, even in east Asia, no one really thinks much about Brunei. brunei

It’s a tiny sultanate of just over 412,000 people on the coast of Borneo, an island that’s otherwise shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. Generally speaking, the population isn’t unlike that of the rest of Malaysia — it’s around 66% ethnic Malay and 11% ethnic Chinese. 

But for historical and governance reasons, the historical sultanate was never subsumed into Malaysia, either during or after British colonial rule. Today, it has sufficient oil and gas deposits (which account for around 90% of its GDP) to make it one of the wealthiest countries in the world, on  a per-capita basis. Think of it as southeast Asia’s version of Qatar, or a bizzaro Singapore, with resource-based wealth instead of finance and services.

Its sultan, Hassanal Bolkiahhe, who has ruled the country as essentially his own personal fiefdom since his coronation in 1967 (17 years before Brunei received its full independence from the United Kingdom), and whose personal wealth is estimated at $20 billion, announced in October 2013 that his government would introduce shari’a law, and the new stringent Islamic laws began to take effect today. Bolkiahhe, who has limited press freedom and outlawed political parties in Brunei, simultaneously serves as the country’s prime minister, finance minister and defense minister. 


But as it begins to transition toward a repressive version of shari’a, the world is certainly paying attention to Brunei now — and largely condemning the draconian nature of its new criminal penalties. 

Under the new laws, Brunei has criminalized insulting the prophet Mohammed, failure to attend Friday prayers, alcohol use and extramarital pregnancy, and strengthened punishments for violating those and other laws. Furthermore, a conviction for sodomy is now subject to death by stoning; as the shari’a regime gradually takes effect, a conviction for theft will eventually be subject to amputation.

Though neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia are known for their relatively relaxed Muslim societies, which feature greater social and religious tolerance than many Middle Eastern countries, Brunei has always been significantly more conservative — alcohol, for example, was always technically forbidden, and shari’a law played a role in some civil arrangements among Muslims, including marriage. But the new push for shari’a covers far more ground, leading to condemnation from the United Nations and other international human rights groups:

The UN’s human rights office said this month it was deeply concerned about the changes, adding that women typically bore the brunt of punishment for crimes involving sex.

“It’s a return to medieval punishment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s a huge step back for human rights in Brunei and totally out of step with the 21st century.”

Problematically, only about two-thirds of Brunei’s residents are Muslim — 13% of the population is Buddhist and 10% is Christian. Though shari’a technically applies only to Brunei’s Muslims, there are obvious concerns among the country’s non-Muslims and among many of the British and other multinational corporations that do business there.

That could put British prime minister David Cameron (pictured above, with Brunei’s sultan) in a tough spot, because of the unique relationship between the United Kingdom and Brunei.   Continue reading Will the UK continue its military support for Brunei’s shari’a regime?

New Thai elections scheduled for July 20


In a deal designed to reduce political tension in Thailand and clear the way for a legitimate, democratically elected government, the country’s electoral commission and the current government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra have agreed to hold a new vote on July 20, following the invalidated February 2 elections that were boycotted by the Thai opposition.thailand

That doesn’t change the ultimate dynamic of Thai politics:

  • Yingluck (and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, until his resignation and exile) and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PTP, ‘For Thais’ Party, พรรคเพื่อไทย) seems remains so popular, especially among the relatively poorer north, that it holds a virtual electoral lock on winning reelection. So when Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill late last year, and her opponents launched anti-government protests, she called snap elections for February.
  • The opposition Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์) haven’t effectively broadened their appeal to win power on purely electoral terms, which explains in large part why the DP’s leadership so quickly boycotted the February vote.
  • That boycott was thinly veiled attempt at induce military intervention to topple Yingluck and install a ‘technocratic’ government much friendlier to Democrat policies and that would likely include Democrat leaders. Though it’s happened in the past, (most recently in 2006 and, arguably in 2008), Thai military leaders are increasingly unenthusiastic about staging coups, much to their credit.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader and a former prime minister, hasn’t ruled out boycotting the elections again this summer. He’s called for a national political reform conversation as a means of guiding Thailand out of its decade-long political impasse. 

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Taken together, these three factors are responsible for the political stalemate that has existed in Thailand since 2001. Yingluck and her ‘red shirt’ supporters can count on winning any free and fair elections for the foreseeable future, but they’re limited by the recalcitrance of the Democrats and their ‘yellow shirt’ supporters, whose refusal to engage in normalized democratic politics has left military intervention as a real (if shrinking) possibility.

That doesn’t bode well for Thailand’s economy or for the income prospects of its nearly 67 million citizens.

If the July elections proceed in an orderly fashion, however, they will determine all 500 members of the  House of Representatives, the lower house of the Ratthasapha (National Assembly of Thailand, รัฐสภา), the lower house of Thailand’s parliament.

Who is Julius Malema?


He’s the enfant terrible of South African politics, and he’s garnered international headlines for his retro brand of leftist redistributive populism that hearkens back to the 1960s-era Marxism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). south africa flag

Banished from the ANC two years ago and now leading his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Malema hopes to ride a wave of youth discontent over economic stagnation, unemployment and land reform to success on May 7. But it’s more likely than not that his following will be less impressive than the attention he’s already attracted.

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Malema rose to prominence as a youth leader within the ANC in 2002, and he became the head of the ANC Youth League in 2008, initially with the full support of South African president Jacob Zuma. As the leader of the ANC’s Youth League (a position that the late Nelson Mandela once held), Malema powered the ANC’s strong 2009 election victory that elevated Zuma to the presidency.

But as Malema’s profile increased, however, so did his antics — and charges of corruption amid Malema’s clearly rising wealth and status. Yet Malema went far beyond the garden-variety graft that’s now commonly associated with ANC rule. He went to Zimbabwe in 2010 and delivered a full-throated endorsement of its longtime president Robert Mugabe, complicating Zuma’s efforts to steer a middle course between Mugabe and the Zimbabwean opposition, then part of a power-sharing government after the controversial 2008 elections. He openly flouted ANC policy by encouraging opposition groups in Botswana to overthrow what he considered a puppet regime.

Back in South Africa, Malema advocated the kind of nationalist land reforms that Mugabe implemented in Zimbabwe that largely caused white residents to flee and that plunged Zimbabwe’s economy into turmoil. Like Mugabe before him, Malema accuses white South Africans of having stolen land from the indigenous population and argues that black South Africans should confiscate land from white Africans without compensation. What’s more, Malema consistently broke with ANC policy to advocate not only for land redistribution, but for the nationalization of South African mines and other industries, causing further headaches for an ANC leadership that’s spent two decades allaying international investors that South Africa will never implement Mugabe-style policies.

Malema was convicted of hate speech in March 2010 for singing an apartheid-era anthem with the lyrics, ‘shoot the Boer,’ and again in September 2011, drawing condemnation from Zuma and other top ANC leaders. After several rounds with the ANC’s internal disciplinary committee, Malema was ultimately booted from the party in 2012. He quickly formed the EFF, a platform to continue waging his fight for land redistribution and nationalization.

It’s not difficult to understand why some South Africans would find Malema’s message appealing.  Continue reading Who is Julius Malema?