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.
Since 1959, when the United Kingdom granted domestic self-rule to Brunei, a garrison of British troops has been stationed in the sultanate, and they actively protected the sultan against a 1962 uprising. Today, the garrison numbers around 900 to 1,000 soldiers and, after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China, it remains the only British military base in east Asia. Since independence in 1984, Brunei’s sultan has paid many of the costs of the British garrison, which secures the sultan’s rule in Brunei (and patrols his palace).
As if that weren’t troubling enough, Cameron now faces the reality of British forces propping up shari’a law in Brunei:
David Cameron was already facing criticism for agreeing to attend next month’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, where human rights abuses are common. The Prime Minister is now being pressed to condemn Brunei’s embrace of laws widely regarded as barbaric and draconian.
“London has a very important role in trying to get the Sultan to re-consider this drastic move to a criminal Sharia system,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a major international outcry to stop this law and Great Britain should take the lead, starting by raising public concerns at the upcoming Commonwealth meeting.”
Ultimately, it could mean a tough choice for Cameron. If he can’t convince the sultan to pull back, he might have to give up the last British military outpost in east Asia (which is useful for obvious strategic reasons). If he nonetheless retains a British garrison in Brunei, he’ll be subject to criticism for using British military power to secure the rule of an increasingly draconian strongman who’s now implementing shari’a.
Photo credit to Getty Images Europe.