Brunei | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Demonstrating greater demand for government accountability, the Legislative Council scrutinized the national budget and requested transparency regarding government investment agencies in March 2007. Also during the year, one of Brunei’s three political parties was deregistered by the Registrar of Societies without explanation.

The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888. The 1959 constitution vested full executive powers in the sultan while providing for five advisory councils, including a Legislative Council. In 1962, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien annulled legislative election results after the leftist Brunei People’s Party (BPP), which sought to end the monarchy, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. After British troops crushed an insurgency mounted by the BPP, Omar declared a state of emergency, which has remained in force ever since. Continuing his father’s absolute rule, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah became Brunei’s 29th sultan in 1967. The British granted Brunei full independence in 1984.

In September 2004, Hassanal reconvened the Legislative Council, which had been suspended since 1984. The Council passed a constitutional amendment to expand its size to 45 seats, with 15 elected positions. Hassanal in September 2005 convened a new Legislative Council, including five indirectly elected members representing village councils. Plans for the 45-person legislature with 15 popularly elected slots remained on the table in 2006 and 2007, but elections had still not been scheduled by year’s end. The sultan’s family and appointees continue to hold all state power, with the Internal Security Act (ISA) maintaining virtually untrammeled powers for the sultan himself.

The Legislative Council appears to have taken on budget review as a regular function in recent years, meeting in 2006 and 2007 to scrutinize government expenditures. At the Council’s March 2007 meeting, one member demanded from the country’s second finance minister information about government investment agencies, including the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) and the Employees Trust Fund. In April, in another rare call for accountability, the minister of home affairs—part of the sultan’s appointed cabinet—called for wise use of the national budget.

This modestly increased activity on the part of the Council and heightened attention on government spending—along with the plans for elected Council members, Brunei’s 2006 accession to the Asian Development Bank, and government efforts to promote the private sector while curbing corruption and radical Islam—are considered preparations for the anticipated depletion of the country’s oil and gas reserves, which currently account for 90 percent of state revenues. The funds have long allowed the government to stave off demands for political reform by employing most of the population, providing citizens with extensive benefits, and sparing them an income tax.

Also in 2007, the government’s Registrar of Societies exercised tighter control over political party activity, requiring the president of the Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB) to step down and disbanding the People’s Awareness Party (PAKAR) altogether.

Brunei continued to strengthen ties with the Philippines through joint naval exercises in September and by sending a new group of peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire in Mindanao in October.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Brunei is not an electoral democracy. The sultan wields broad powers under a long-standing state of emergency, and no direct legislative elections have been held since 1962. Citizens convey concerns to their leaders through government-vetted councils of elected village chiefs. In April 2007, the minister of home affairs called on these councils to be more active in local development following the government’s allotment of $125,000 to support their activities. The government promotes a combination of Islamic values, local Malay culture, and allegiance to the monarchy through a national ideology called Malay Muslim Monarchy, and portrays abandonment of these values as treason or haram (sin).

The reform efforts of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah have been largely superficial and are designed to encourage international investment in Brunei’s economy. The unicameral Legislative Council has no political standing independent of the sultan. However, mounting pressure in 2007 from Council members to disclose information on government investment agencies and civil-service salary increases reflect a growing demand for government accountability and responsible spending.

Despite plans to establish a 45-member legislature with 15 popularly elected members, political activity remains extremely limited. The number of political parties fell from three to two in 2007, when the Registrar of Societies deregistered the PAKAR without official explanation after detecting internal splits over the last several years. The PPKB, an offshoot of one of two parties that were banned in 1988, elected a new president in an emergency session in April after the Registrar of Societies required party president Mohd Atta to resign. The country’s other remaining party—the National Development Party (NDP), headed by former political prisoner, exile, and insurgent leader Awang Muhammad Yasin Affendy bin Abdul Rahman—was permitted to register in 2005 after pledging to work as a partner with the government and swearing loyalty to the sultan; it held its first congress in 2006. When active at all, parties generally focus on social rather than political issues because of the country’s extensive political restrictions.

The vast wealth of the sultan and his family lends itself to profligacy among officials. Brunei claims to have launched a three-pronged, zero-tolerance policy on corruption, and its Anti-Corruption Bureau has made efforts to cooperate with regional partners and the Ministry of Education in recent years. A ruling by the UK Privy Council in November 2007 seconded a 2006 ruling by the Brunei high court requiring the sultan’s brother and former finance minister, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, to transfer billions of dollars in assets to the sultanate after being charged with misappropriating oil revenues. No verdict has been issued in the corruption trial of former minister of development Haji Ismail, which began in February 2006. Brunei was not included in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Legislation enacted in 2001 allows officials to shut down newspapers without cause and to fine and jail journalists for articles deemed “false and malicious.” The national sedition law was amended in 2005 to strengthen prohibitions on criticizing the sultan and the national ideology. In April 2007, the deputy prime minister warned the media not to “play with fire” when reporting on the sultanate, and to respect government decisions to withhold certain information. The largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin, practices self-censorship, though it does publish letters to the editor that criticize government policies. A second English-language daily, the Brunei Times, was launched in July 2006 by prominent businessmen in an effort to attract foreign investors; it covers a wider range of international, finance, and opinion pieces, as well as online polls on government policies. A smaller, Malay-language newspaper and several Chinese-language newspapers are also published. Brunei’s only television station is state run, but residents can receive Malaysian broadcasts and satellite channels, which deliver international news. The country’s internet practice code stipulates that content must not be subversive or encourage illegitimate reform efforts. Access to the internet is reportedly unrestricted.

The Shafeite branch of Sunni Islam, Brunei’s official religion, permeates all levels of society. The constitution allows for the practice of other religions, but religious freedom for non-Muslims is restricted. Proselytizing and the importation of religious teaching materials and scriptures by other faiths is prohibited, while Muslim religious authorities regularly organize dakwah (proselytizing) activities and offer incentives to converts. The government requires all residents to carry identity cards stating their religion. Marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not permitted. Muslims require permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to convert to other faiths, and official and societal pressure make conversion nearly impossible. Christianity is considered the greatest threat to Islam and is the most common target of censorship. Radical Islam is discouraged, in part due to the government’s interest in attracting investment. The Islamist Al-Arqam movement and the Baha’i faith are banned. The country’s various groups coexist peacefully, however.

The study of Islam, Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology, and the Jawi (Arabic script used for writing the Malay language) are mandatory in all public schools. The teaching of all other religions is prohibited, and the Ministry of Religious Education has controlled religious education since 2006. In January 2007, the Ministry of Education announced a new, five-year strategic education plan in an effort to diversify the country’s workforce.

Emergency laws continue to restrict freedom of assembly. Most nongovernmental organizations are locally based professional or business groups, and under the January 2005 Societies Order, all organizations must register and name all members. Registration can be refused for any reason. Brunei’s three, largely inactive trade unions, which must also register, are all in the oil sector and represent only about 15,000 workers. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized. Brunei became a member of the International Labor Organization in January 2007.

The constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary, but the courts generally appear to act independently. The legal system is based on English common law, plus legislation enacted by the sultan. The local magistrates’ courts try most cases, while more serious cases are reserved for the high court, for which British judges are appointed. Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes. Sharia does not currently apply to non-Muslims. In March 2007, Brunei’s chief justice called for the appointment of an additional judge to the high court to help resolve the country’s backlog of capital cases, which results in lengthy pretrial detention for those accused of serious crimes.

Religious enforcement officers raid homes and arrest khalwat offenders—those suspected of violating the Islamic prohibition on the mingling of unrelated Muslim men and women. The authorities also detain suspected antigovernment activists under the ISA, which permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods. Five ISA detainees arrested in 2004 for distributing counterfeit money were released in July 2007 after swearing allegiance to the sultanate. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Citizens enjoy considerably greater autonomy, rights, and benefits than Brunei’s many “stateless” people, mostly longtime ethnic Chinese residents who are denied recognition as citizens, and migrant workers, who comprise 30 to 40 percent of the country’s workforce but are largely unprotected by the country’s labor laws. Authorities are very strict on illegal entry, and workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned or whipped.

Women are treated as unequal to men in areas such as divorce, in accordance with Islamic law, but an increasing number of women have entered the workforce in recent years. Women in government-run institutions and non-Muslim female students are required or pressured to wear traditional Muslim head coverings.