As a tiny south east Asian country of less than 500,000 people, which was formerly under British colonial rule, Brunei has typically been known as “abode of peace”. But that perception may be about to change as the country moves towards full implementation of Sharia law in less than a week’s time. Up until now, homosexual sex acts have been criminalised with a lengthy prison sentence, but the proposed changes to the law will permit the stoning and whipping to death of LGBT+ people. Amnesty International has condemned the new reforms as "heinous".
The road to these new laws began in 2014, when Brunei gained international attention for all the wrong reasons. The country began implementing an extreme and violent version of Sharia law that, when implemented in its entirety, included punishments such as death for apostates (Muslims who renounce their religion), the amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for those found guilty of adultery and sodomy between two males.
Within hours of the first phase of Brunei’s Sharia law being implemented in 2014, activists around the world were demanding a boycott of assets owned by the Brunei government and the country’s Sultan, with many celebrities and other high profile individuals lending their support to the calls for a boycott.
Although Brunei’s Syariah (Sharia) Penal Code impacts everyone in the country, those calling for a boycott of Brunei in 2014 primarily focused their attention on the risk to the country’s LGBT+ community. With punishments as extreme as whippings and death by stoning, along with fines and jail terms, for those found guilty of consensual sexual activity between members of the same sex, Brunei’s LGBT+ community is among the most at risk groups from the implementation of Sharia law.
When first introducing the Syariah Penal Code in 2014, the Brunei government committed to implementing the laws in three distinct phases, with a grace period between implementation of each. It is unclear if the backlash that followed implementation of the first phase of the Syariah Penal Code played any part, but further implementation stalled after the first phase came into force on 1 May 2014. In the years that followed, there seemed to be a growing, albeit cautious, acceptance amongst Bruneians that the government had abandoned its plans to fully implement Sharia law, despite occasional statements from government officials that the the government intended to proceed with implementation.
But now everything has changed and there is no longer a mood of calm. It came as a shock to locals and international observers when it recently came to light that the government is preparing to concurrently rush through implementation of the final two phases of the Syariah Penal Code by 3 April 2019, breaking its promise of implementing the laws in three phases.
Although the commencement order for implementation of phases two and three of the Syariah Penal Code was published in the Government Gazette in December 2018, the Brunei Government has never made any public announcement to prepare for implementation and the local media has not reported on it. The last known reporting on implementation came in March 2018, when Brunei’s largest daily newspaper, The Borneo Bulletin, reported the Minister of Religious Affairs as saying that “the next phase [of implementation] will be carried out according to the right administrative time”.
A source who previously worked closely with Brunei’s media tells me that the media is banned from reporting on further implementation. The secrecy with which the Brunei government is trying to rush through the final stages of the Syariah Penal Code is itself cause for alarm and it is reasonable to want to know why the government is being so secretive if it believes so strongly that it is its obligation to implement these laws. Prior to implementation of the first phase of the Syariah Penal Code in 2014, the country’s Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, reportedly described the laws as “a great achievement for the country”.
The secrecy surrounding implementation and the way these laws are being rushed through only serves to exacerbate people’s fears. In an interview he did last year, a young gay man expressed his fears about further implementation of Sharia law and what will happen to him if it’s found out that he is gay. Now he has confided in me that he has no choice but to consider the worst case scenario and is considering leaving the country.
In this, he is not alone. I am aware of at least one other person who identifies as LGBT+ who has already fled the country and is seeking asylum in a much more tolerant society, having escaped Brunei late last year in fear of what is to come. Sadly, with laws which signal such potential danger for LGBT+ people, she is unlikely to be the last. We must not let this human rights abuse go unchallenged and ignored.
Matthew Wolfe is a founder of The Brunei Project, an independent human rights initiative raising awareness about human rights in Brunei.
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