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Throughout 2001, Brunei continued to deal with the repercussions of a scandal involving the misappropriation of funds by Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the ruling sultan's brother. Although the case against the prince was resolved through an out-of-court settlement in May 2000, his misuse of almost $15 billion in state funds has had a widespread effect throughout Brunei, exacerbating the downturn in the economy, fueling resentment of the royal family's secretive and absolutist style of rule, and leading to an increase in social tensions. Following the prince's downfall, conservatives in economic and religious posts have been consolidating their position, and the government, mindful of deflecting criticism, has focused on reaffirming its Islamic credentials while tightening its control over the media.
Brunei, a hereditary sultanate, consists of two noncontiguous enclaves on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. It became a British protectorate in 1888. The country's first written constitution was adopted in 1959 and provided for five advisory councils: the Privy Council, the Religious Council, the Council of Succession, the Council of Ministers, and the Legislative Council. In 1962, the leftist Brunei People's Party (PRB), which sought to remove the sultan from power, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member Legislative Council. The results were annulled and a PRB-backed rebellion ensued, which was crushed by occupying British troops. The sultan then assumed constitutionally authorized emergency powers for a stipulated two-year period. These powers have since been renewed every two years, and elections have not been held since 1965. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ascended the throne in October 1967.
Brunei achieved full independence from Great Britain in 1984. In 1985, the government recognized the moderate Brunei National Democratic Party (PKDB) and, a year later, the offshoot Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB). In 1988, the sultan dissolved the PKDB and detained two of its leaders for two years, reportedly after the party called for elections. In 1995, the authorities permitted a PPKB general assembly. Abdul Latif Chuchu, one of the two former PKDB leaders detained from 1988 to 1990, was elected party president. Chuchu later resigned under government pressure, and since then, the PPKB has been subjected to harassment. Now, it is largely inactive. In August 1998, the sultan announced that his son, Prince Billah, was heir to the sultanate.
For years, the kingdom's population refrained from criticizing the sultan's lifestyle, as they themselves benefited from oil sales revenues. However, quiet public dissatisfaction against corruption and abuse of power has been fuelled by the exposure of gross mismanagement at Brunei's largest private firm, Amedeo Development Corporation, which collapsed in 1998. The firm, managed by the sultan's brother, Prince Jefri, lost an estimated $15 billion. The prince's extravagant lifestyle in the midst of an economic downturn further scarred the image of the royal family. The sultan subsequently appointed Prince Mohamed to replace Prince Jefri as chief of the Brunei Investment Agency, the investment arm of the government that manages the nation's oil wealth. The sultan also allowed the government to file a $15 billion lawsuit against the prince for financial misconduct. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court in May 2000 and Prince Jefri was granted a $300,000 per month allowance.
Oil and gas accounts for more than half of Brunei's economic activity and almost 90 percent of its exports, but this natural wealth is rapidly being depleted. With a chronic budget deficit, rising unemployment, and a weak private sector, the government recognizes that it has to find new ways to support the economy in the long run. In July 2000, the sultan announced plans to turn his kingdom into an international financial center, with the Islamic banking sector being the prime target market. New laws covering international banking, business companies, trusts and limited partnerships, and registered agents and trustee licensing were introduced. There are also plans to build business and industrial centers in border areas Brunei shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Although the government now supports a more diversified economy, political control has tightened in some areas. For example, an Islamic scholar was appointed vice chancellor of the University of Brunei Darussalam in 1999 and conservatives have sidelined more liberal members within the civil service.
Citizens of Brunei lack the democratic means to change their government. The sultan serves as prime minister (as well as finance and defense minister), rules by decree, and, along with an inner circle of relatives, holds absolute power. The Legislative Council has been fully appointed and the constitution partially suspended since 1962. Currently, only the Council of Ministers, composed largely of the sultan's relatives, and the Legislative Council convene. Since 1992, village chiefs have been chosen for life terms through local elections in which all candidates must have knowledge of Islam (although they may be non-Muslims), and cannot have past or current links with a political party. The chiefs communicate with the government through a village consultative council, and the sultan appoints the council's advisors. Citizens may petition the sultan. No public political party activity has occurred since 1995. Some members of non-Malay ethnic groups, including ethnic Chinese and others born in Brunei, are not automatically accorded citizenship, and Brunei's colonial-era nationalization laws are generally considered to be in need of reform.
There are privately owned newspapers, but they are either owned or controlled by the sultan's family, and they practice self-censorship on political and religious issues. The government-controlled Radio Television Brunei operates the only local broadcast outlet. International programming can be accessed through a cable network, but foreign journals with articles critical of the royal family or government are not allowed into the kingdom. In October 2001, the government adopted a series of restrictive amendments to existing press laws, including requiring newspapers to apply for annual publishing permits, threatening journalists with jail terms for publishing "false news," and requiring noncitizens to obtain government approval before working in the press.
Islam is the official religion. Non-Muslims face bans or restrictions on building or repairing places of worship and importing religious books and educational materials. Religious education in non-Muslim schools is also prohibited. Since 1991, the sultan has promoted local culture and the primacy of the monarchy as the defender of Islam through a conservative Malay Muslim Monarchy (Malayu Islam Beraja, or MIB, in Malay) ideology, apparently to ward off any incipient calls for democratization. Islamic studies and the study of MIB are required in all schools. Activities deemed offensive to Islam are actively curtailed. For example, police confiscate Christian and Buddhist icons as well as alcohol and foodstuffs that do not conform to Islamic dietary laws. In early 2001, seven Christians were arrested for alleged "cult" activities; several of them had participated in a well-organized prayer program. They were detained for several months under the Internal Security Act, and one of the accused was eventually charged with smuggling Indonesian Bibles into the country and given a two-year prison sentence. Following the trial of Prince Jefri in mid-2000, the authorities have increased their attempts to police people's behavior, and in February 2001 the Ministry of Home Affairs announced a ban on all musical performances, pronouncing them un-Islamic.
There are three independent trade unions. All are in the oil sector, but they are largely inactive and their membership constitutes less than five percent of the oil industry's workforce. Legislation does not explicitly recognize or deny the right to strike, but in practice, strikes do not occur.
The judiciary is independent. A 1996 appellate-level decision formally established the courts' power to discharge a defendant even if not requested to do so by the prosecution. Defendants enjoy adequate procedural safeguards, and in civil cases, there is a right of appeal to the Privy Council in London. Although Sharia (Islamic law) supercedes civil law in some areas, it is applied only to Muslims. Earlier this year, the judiciary's website was updated; it aims to provide information on the legal system in Brunei as well as to collect feedback on the public's concerns.
The police force is under civilian control. Police have broad powers to arrest without warrants, but in practice they generally obtain a warrant from a magistrate. The Internal Security Act allows the government to detain suspects without a trial for renewable two-year periods. The act has occasionally been used to detain political dissidents; for example, in 1998, several citizens were arrested for distributing letters that defamed the royal family.
Although the law permits government intrusion into the privacy of individuals, families, or homes, this rarely happens. Citizens can travel freely within the country and abroad. Under Sharia, Muslim women face some discrimination in divorce, inheritance, and child custody matters. There are occasional reports of physical abuse and ill-treatment of female domestic servants and foreign workers.