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The sultanate experienced little political change in 2010, with the Legislative Council continuing to perform an active oversight role within its significantly limited purview. Continuing a positive trend for women’s rights from 2009, Brunei’s first female cabinet minister was appointed to a five-year term.
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 Saifuddienannulled legislative election results after the leftist and antimonarchist Brunei People’s Party (BPP) won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. British troops put down an insurrection mounted by the BPP, and 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 2004, Hassanal reconvened the Legislative Council, which had been suspended since 1984. The body passed a constitutional amendment to expand its size to 45 seats, with 15 elected positions. However, Hassanal in September 2005 convened a new, 29-member Legislative Council, including five indirectly elected members representing village councils. Plans for the 45-person legislature with 15 directly elected slots remained on the table, but no elections were scheduled.
The existing Legislative Council began conducting budget-review activity as a regular function, and the government pursued parallel efforts to promote the private sector while curbing corruption and radical Islam. These tentative reforms were considered preparations for an eventual succession and the expected depletion of the country’s oil and gas reserves, which accounted for 90 percent of state revenues and were expected to run out in two to three decades.Energy wealth had long allowed the government to stave off demands for political reform by employing much of the population, providing citizens with extensive benefits, and sparing them an income tax. However, a French energy company discovered some new oil and gas deposits in late 2008, and there was little additional political change in 2009. In December 2009, at the Bali Democracy Forum, the sultan argued that his continued grip on power was necessary to prevent globalization from negatively affecting social cohesion. In May 2010, the sultan instituted a significant cabinet reshuffle, and while many of the same individuals remained, the change signified a small step toward improving governance. The appointments, which notably included the first female minister, will last five years.
Also in May, Brunei and neighboring Malaysia moved forward with a 2009 agreement to jointly explore offshore oil reserves near their border.
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.
The reform efforts of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah have been largely superficial and are designed to attract foreign investment. The unicameral Legislative Council has no political standing independent of the sultan. However, the council’s mounting oversight activity and queries aimed at the government reflect a growing demand for accountability and responsible spending. In a sign of the body’s assertiveness, one ethnic Chinese legislator at a March 2010 council session proposed the establishment of a zone for foreign tourists to drink alcohol, challenging the country’s strict ban on alcohol sales. The religious affairs minister rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would lead to further weakening of morality laws.
Genuine political activity remains extremely limited. In 2007, the Registrar of Societies disbanded the People’s Awareness Party (PAKAR) and forced the president of the Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB) to resign. The PPKB was then deregistered without explanation in 2008, leaving the National Development Party (NDP) as Brunei’s sole remaining political party.
The government claims to have a 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. In June 2008, an arrest warrant was issued for the sultan’s brother and former finance minister, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who had skipped a court appearance concerning his failure to compensate the sultanate for billions of dollars in misappropriated oil revenues. The compensation had been ordered in 2006 by a Brunei court, and the prince has reportedly exhausted his opportunities to appeal. Having lived abroad for many years, the prince returned to officially reside in Brunei in November 2010 after the two brothers finally reconciled. Brunei was ranked 38 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Legislation enacted in 2001 allows officials to close 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 “Malay Muslim Monarchy” ideology. 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, theBrunei Times, was launched by prominent businessmen in 2006 to attract foreign investors. A smaller, Malay-language newspaper and several Chinese-language papers are also published. Brunei’s only television station is state run, but residents can receive Malaysian broadcasts and satellite channels. 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 constitution allows for the practice of religions other than the official Shafeite school of Sunni Islam, but proselytizing by non-Muslims is prohibited. Christianity is the most common target of censorship, and the Baha’i faith is banned. Nevertheless, the country’s various religious groups coexist peacefully. All residents must carry identity cards stating their religion, and marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed. Muslims require permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to convert to other faiths, though official and societal pressure make conversion nearly impossible. Non-Shafeite forms of Islam are actively discouraged, in part due to concerns about security and foreign investment.
The study of Islam, Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology, and the Jawi (Arabic script used for writing the Malay language) is mandatory in all public schools. The teaching of all other religions is prohibited. Under a January 2010 order, Muslim students in private schools must also receive religious instruction.
Emergency laws continue to restrict freedom of assembly. Most nongovernmental organizations are professional or business groups, and under the 2005 Societies Order, all must register and name their members. No more than 10 people can associate for a purpose without registering, and all meeting minutes must be submitted to the Registrar of Societies. Registration can be refused for any reason. In late 2008, the government disbanded 55 associations for not complying with regulations. 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.
The constitution does not provide for an independent judiciary. Although the courts generally appear to act independently, they have yet to be tested in political cases. Final recourse for civil cases is managed by the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes, though it does not apply to non-Muslims. A backlog of capital cases results in lengthy pretrial detention for those accused of serious crimes. According to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report, caning is mandatory for 42 criminal offenses, including immigration violations, and is commonly carried out, though an attending doctor can interrupt the punishment for medical reasons.
Religious enforcement officers raid homes to punish the mingling of unrelated Muslim men and women. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, Bruneian religious authorities reported 51 of these “khalwat” cases between July 2009 and June 2010. However, some of the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. The authorities also detain suspected antigovernment activists under the Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods.Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
Brunei’s many “stateless” people, mostly longtime ethnic Chinese residents, are denied the full rights and benefits of citizens, while migrant workers, who comprise 30 to 40 percent of the workforce, are largely unprotected by the labor laws. Authorities are very strict on illegal entry, and workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned or whipped.
Islamic law generally places women at a disadvantage in areas such as divorce, but an increasing number of women have entered the workforce in recent years. In April 2009, the government abolished a policy whereby female civil servants’ employment contracts were terminated upon marriage, which had meant that they could only be reemployed on a month-to-month basis. In August of that year, Brunei appointed its first female attorney general, Hayati Salleh, who had formerly been the country’s first female High Court judge. In a rare cabinet reshuffle in May 2010, the sultan appointed Adina Othman as deputy minister for culture, youth, and sports, making her the first woman to serve as a cabinet minister. Women in government-run institutions and non-Muslim female students are required or pressured to wear traditional Muslim head coverings.