By Nile Bowie
May 7, 2019
Amid a global outcry against Brunei’s implementation of Islamic sharia law measures that allow for death by stoning for sex between men and extramarital affairs, the sultanate’s ruler has apparently climbed down from the harshest measures in what some have interpreted as a bid to shield his nation’s besieged overseas commercial interests.
The United Nations, United States and other Western governments had all lodged their concerns over the strict new measures. Hollywood celebrities, meanwhile, had called for a boycott of luxury hotels in Europe and the US owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, exclusive properties known collectively as the Dorchester Collection.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the small oil-rich sultanate’s absolute ruler, had previously defended his nation’s right to implement the code, part of his move towards what some see as the most extreme interpretation of sharia law. Apart from death by stoning for sexual offenses, the law also allows for amputation of limbs for theft and whipping for other violations.
In a televised May 5 speech, the 72-year-old monarch appeared to step back from those measures, declaring first that Brunei would ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and that it would not enforce the death penalty on those convicted under new religious laws. He also claimed the “privacy of individuals” would be respected.
Addressing the controversial legislation for the first time since its introduction on April 3, the sultan cited “many questions and misperceptions” over the implementation of Islamic law and said he would extend a moratorium on capital punishment under the new laws that already applies to the regular criminal code.
Though offenses such as murder and drug trafficking are punishable by the death penalty under Brunei’s criminal code, executions have not been carried out in the country since 1957. Hassanal did not elaborate on whether this was a new decision, nor did he address other punishments such as whipping and amputation.
“Allah, the provider of blessings, will never bestow upon us laws meant to inflict cruelty on others,” he said in the address marking the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “We are conscious of the fact that misperceptions may cause apprehension. However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident.”
Atypically, the sultan’s office released an official English translation of the speech, indicating a desire to temper the international backlash that has flared over fears that the strict penal code would lead to the persecution or death of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
There are signs that the boycott against properties owned by the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), a government arm, championed by actor George Clooney, musician Elton John and others has gained traction. Multinational banks such as JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank, CitiGroup, and Goldman Sachs all banned their employees from staying at Dorchester Collection-operated luxury hotels.
Brunei’s commercial interests are being affected elsewhere, too. According to Bloomberg, real estate firms in the United Kingdom have either shunned invitations from the sovereign fund to consult on its redevelopment of Lansdowne House, a prestigious office building in London’s West End acquired by BIA in the 1990s, or sought first clarification on the new laws.
Royal Brunei Airlines, the sultanate’s flagship carrier, is also feeling the pinch with reports of public relations firms in the UK declining offers to help sell Brunei as a travel and tourism destination. STA Travel, an international travel agency, went as far as severing ties with the airline, which accounts for 80% of the seats flown to and from the country.
Brunei’s ruler “clearly underestimated the damage this law would cause to the Brunei brand,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Asia Times. “It’s not just Brunei’s overseas hotels that are taking the hit but partners in the petroleum industry are asking tough questions about the likely fate of LGBT persons under this law.”
Royal Dutch Shell, the joint owner of Brunei’s biggest oil and gas venture responsible for some 90% of the country’s energy sector revenues, recently came under pressure when Eumedion, a Dutch corporate governance group comprised of top Shell shareholders, called on it to press for the improvement of LGBT rights in Brunei.
“This moratorium on the death penalty doesn’t go nearly far enough, it’s clear the sultan is only addressing the most horrific part of the law in the hope of blunting international criticism and anger,” Robertson said, adding that remarks by Brunei’s ruler showed that “the international campaign on Brunei is working, and now more pressure is needed.”
However, not all are convinced that international pressure forced the sultan’s hand.
“Although at first glance it seems that the sultan has backtracked due to international criticism and perhaps even because his bottom-line is being adversely impacted, on closer inspection, this was a domestic masterstroke,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies.
The academic said the announcement’s timing, coming just before the Islamic holy month, would resonate with Brunei’s Muslim majority. “The sultan’s seemingly conciliatory stance shows that he is capable of compassion, reflection and introspection, values that are internalized and promulgated in Ramadan.”
“[His] mileage has increased, not decreased because of the announcement,” Mustafa told Asia Times, describing the move as a “strategic halt” and “temporary reprieve” meant to “buy time for the kingdom to calm the turbulence and concurrently better explain and educate on the nuts and bolts of sharia law as is being implemented in Brunei.”
“I don’t believe that his Ramadan speech reflected his ‘bowing down’ to international pressure,” Azfar Anwar, an Islamic studies and history student at the University of Oxford, told Asia Times. “[The sultan’s] speech demonstrates his belief that the [sharia criminal code] simply needs to be explained better to the global audience.”
“He is de-escalating the situation by providing international audiences what they wanted to hear, [but also] upon scrutiny, he is showing the conservative Muslims, whether in Brunei or around the world, particularly those in the Middle East where he is trying to court investment, that he is unyielding on the sharia.”
If the sultan sincerely sought to strengthen Islamic teachings, however, Azfar claims he would have “sanctioned a serious discourse about this set of premodern Islamic penal codes, and how it can be implemented now according to the principles of justice and equality. All we have seen so far is the instrumentalization of the sharia as a political accessory,” he said.
While the Islamic penal code has support among Bruneians who see its implementation as an expression of religious and national identity, one local expert believes the sultan’s clarified stance appeals to those unhappy with the global media’s coverage of the strict new measures, which are widely seen in Brunei as misunderstood and lacking local context.
“The sultan choosing to respond in this way is unusual, but perhaps necessary since the backlash has taken on a more serious tenor than it did when sharia was first announced back in 2013,” a former Bruneian journalist told Asia Times. “To an extent, the external pressure has forced the governments to appease its critics somewhat. Will it reverse the law entirely? No.”
Bruneians are “probably hoping that with this clarification from the Sultan, the global opprobrium will dissipate and life will return to normal,” said the former journalist, who asked not to be named. “The Hollywood-led boycott is deeply unpopular here, most locals feel it smacks of Western hypocrisy and that Brunei is being unfairly targeted.”
Dominik Müller, a social anthropologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, told Asia Times that the sultan’s remarks represented a “clarification” rather than a “U-turn”, as reported widely by international media and made explicit “what many government people have long unofficially said and what most Bruneians have assumed.”
“Bruneian government sources have, albeit only behind the scenes, consistently stressed for years that the new law’s harshest punishments would never be applied and having them on paper would be merely of ‘educational’ character, though other problematic sections, not death-penalty or LGBT-related, remain valid,” he said.
“That said, it is truly remarkable that the sultan said it explicitly in a royal decree. Content-wise this was not surprising, but that he publicly said it, and unambiguously, definitely was and is clearly linked to international reactions,” said the academic, who is also a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School’s Program of Law and Society in the Muslim World.
“And although it is not the rupture international media claim it to be, it changes the situation insofar as it reduces the likelihood of the law developing a life of its own in the hands of potentially zealous enforcers.”