The brutality of Brunei

Whippings, stonings and amputations have become part of Brunei’s official legal code, causing outcry in the West. But as Duncan Bartlett reports, there’s been little condemnation of the nation within Asia

The cruel punishments which Brunei has endorsed for use against gays, lesbians and religious dissenters have stunned many outsiders. The country’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has introduced a penal code based upon a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Under such rules, extramarital or gay sex are punishable by whipping or stoning to death.

According to this version of the Sharia law code, thieves may have their limbs amputated. Women who have an abortion can be sent to jail and people can also be whipped for not attending Friday prayers at a mosque.

International outrage

Internationally, it is the assault on gays and lesbians which has caused the most outrage. Gay men may legally be put to death by stoning and lesbians may receive up to a hundred lashes, which could kill them or leave them wounded for life.

Not surprisingly, endorsement of the new legal code has been condemned by several governments, the United Nations and human rights groups.Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton says: ‘Criminalising extramarital or homosexual sexual activity is contrary to international human rights norms and the code’s punishments amount to grave human rights violations under international treaties prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.’

Boycott call

Celebrities including George Clooney and Elton John have called for boycotts of businesses owned by the Sultan of Brunei, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles and London’s Dorchester Hotel.

Endorsement of the new legal code has been condemned by several governments

Deutsche Bank has said that it will not allow its staff to stay at hotels owned by the Sultan and some European and American financial institutions have promised to cut links with the Brunei Investment Agency. Not that these warnings made much difference to the rich and powerful leader who endorsed the law.

Following the outcry, the Sultan of Brunei declared in a televised speech: ‘I want to see Islamic laws in my country grow stronger and more visible.’

Asia’s reaction

By contrast to the shock and anger expressed by governments and campaigners in the West, there has been little outcry in Asia. Brunei has a large population of Southeast and South Asian migrants, mostly domestic workers and oil-rig labourers, including many people from Bangladesh.

Soon after the announcement that the strict laws would take effect, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrived in Brunei for three days of friendly talks with the Sultan. The leaders signed several deals, promising to strengthen their cooperation in the fields of agriculture, energy, culture and sports.

Nor has there been any backlash from Brunei’s key economic partner, China.

The BBC’s Asian Business Correspondent Karishma Vaswani says: ‘Brunei has become dependent on China to improve its economic fortunes, so its decision to move towards a strict form of Sharia law won’t be seen in a particularly harsh light by the Chinese, who typically are not too bothered about other countries’ human rights records when it comes to making investment decisions.’

Brunei is an enthusiastic supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and hopes to tap Chinese investment as it diversifies its economy away from oil, which currently accounts for most of its wealth. Brunei’s oil reserves are estimated to run out within two to three decades and the country’s economy has been in recession for several years, although this has had little impact on the huge personal wealth of the Sultan and his family.

Piety spreads

As the economy slows, there is also a wave of increasing religiosity spreading through Brunei, just as it is in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia.

Karishma Vishwani believes the Sultan’s decision to accept the tough interpretation of Sharia law is part of his plan to appease the fundamentalists and thus consolidate his power. ‘This is a way for the Sultan to gain legitimacy for his rule because the only significant opposition he faces comes from the Islamic clerics,’ she says. ‘The falling commodity prices have left the economy in recession, so there are murmurs of disenchantment and discontent. Swinging towards Sharia is a typical playbook at a time when Islamic fundamentalism is becoming a stronger force in Southeast Asian countries.’

In the recent Indonesian presidential election campaign, the eventual winner,President Jokowi Widodo, chose a Muslim cleric as his running mate, partly to widen his appeal among conservatives. The cleric is known for his hardline views on lesbian and gay issues and his selection was criticised by Human Rights Watch.

No stonings

In Brunei, even if the Sharia morality laws are not repealed, campaigners hope that the draconian punishments will be never carried out.

Amnesty International notes that Brunei has not used the death penalty since the 1950s. Yet for Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton, the biggest concern is the arbitrary nature of the laws.

‘The fact that Brunei has moved to actually put these laws on the books is itself a significant development in the country’s trajectory, irrespective of how they may or may not actually operate in practice,’ he says.

Ordinary Bruneians, including non-Muslims, have no say on legal issues but must live with the consequences of decisions made by political and religious leaders, argues Mr Sifton. He wants concerned governments to warn the Sultan that they can seize his extensive properties – including luxury hotels and a polo park – and prevent him from travelling to their countries.

‘Criticism and condemnation are not enough,’ he adds. ‘It’s time for Brunei and its ruler to face the consequences.’

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Asia

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