Dissident's release stirs hope for change in Brunei

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The Independent Online
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, the richest man in the world, has completed his lavish 50th birthday celebrations by resuming his game of cat-and-mouse with Zaini Ahmad, 61, one of Brunei's best-known dissidents who was released from jail at the end of last week.

Western diplomats in Brunei see the release as a significant crack in the edifice of the absolute monarchy which rules this oil-rich enclave on Borneo. However, it was not accompanied by any other indication of relaxation in the sultan's family's total domination of Brunei's economic and political life.

Mr Zaini's release serves as a timely reminder that Brunei is more than home to the man who lives in the world's largest palace, owns the Dorchester Hotel and a private fleet of Rolls Royce cars. It is also home to 300,000 people, most of whom enjoy a high standard of living, albeit without basic civil rights.

In 1962 Mr Zaini's Parti Rakyat Brunei swept to victory in the nation's first and only democratic elections. The present Sultan's father, Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin III, refused to accept the result, insisting that no election could be allowed to undermine the power of the monarchy. The British, then running Brunei as a protectorate, had forced the Sultan into holding the election and were as surprised as he was at the victory of the party. When it became clear that the victors were to be denied power, the party's supporters staged a revolt which was swiftly and brutally put down by British forces, mainly Gurkha troops.

Mr Zaini was among 2,000 or so people arrested. After serving 11 years in jail he escaped to Malaysia, only to be re-arrested on his return to Brunei.

After the insurrection, the Sultan was effectively deposed by his son, with British encouragement. It seems that Britain regarded the old Sultan as too stubborn, particularly in his refusal to join the then new Federation of Malaysia.

With an exquisite inability to judge Asian politics, the Foreign Office believed the Sultan's son would be more compliant. At first it looked as though they were right. But, as he grew into the job, he showed even greater determination than his father to be rid of British domination.

The formal British protectorate arrangement ended in 1984, but a number of British "advisers" remained in key government positions. British influence quickly waned as the former Crown Agents were stripped of the right to manage the Sultanate's funds.

There are no overt signs of political dissent in Brunei. A mild opposition party gave up the struggle in 1988. Mr Zaini has renounced opposition to the monarchy and expressed "sincere regret" for his role in the rebellion. The regime, however, has been showing signs of developing an ideology which justifies its rule. Official propaganda stresses nationalism and Islam in conjunction with appeals for loyalty to the monarchy.

A national forum has recently been initiated to provide local leaders with a means of participating in the formulation of policy, but the doors of the legislature remain firmly shut. Although public participation in government is slight, Brunei allows local groups to voice their views, including the right to criticise government policy. It is done within well-understood limits but maintains some form of contact between the ruler and his subjects.