Here’s what you need to know about Brunei, as harsh anti-gay laws begin


royal on the park hotel protest boycott shell
Photo: Facebook

Protesters are planning to belatedly join the 50th birthday celebrations of the Sultan of Brunei’s Royal on the Park Hotel outside the Brisbane premise this Saturday, April 13, two days after the official celebrations.

A spokesperson told QN Magazine, “This is a party we believe it is appropriate to be late to.”

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The hotel opened April 11, 1969, as the Brisbane Parkroyal and was later bought by the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) for which the financial beneficiary is the Sultan of Brunei, the autocratic all-powerful ruler of the tiny oil-rich South-East Asian nation of under half a million people.

The Sultan has prompted world-wide protests through his introduction of laws which include whipping and death by stoning for “hudud” crimes. Hudud crimes are defined as:

  • Adultery
  • Fornication
  • Consuming intoxicants
  • False accusation of fornication
  • Theft
  • Armed robbery
  • Apostasy (renouncing Islam)
  • Sodomy
  • Premeditated murder with intent to rob

Protests first erupted in 2013 when the Sultanate announced the staged implementation of the laws. Hollywood celebrities and others boycotted the famous Dorchester Collection of luxury five-star American and European hotels.

However, most of the Sultan’s other investments escaped attention, including his Royal on the Park Hotel in Brisbane due to the opaque nature of the BIA, one of the world’s least transparent sovereign wealth funds.

The Dorchester Collection of hotels weathered the early protests through a three-fold strategy. They trumpeted the charity work and non-discriminatory policies of their hotels.

They offered gay employees for media interviews, pushing the line that boycotts and protests would achieve nothing on the laws but cost decent hard-working Americans/English/French etc their income. Thirdly, they waited out the media firestorm confident attention would eventually turn elsewhere.

It did.

What the hotels could not deny was that the ultimate beneficiary of the profits of those hotels is the Sultan of Brunei. No laws or institutions exist to place any constraint on his power. Brunei and its sovereign wealth fund are his to do with as he likes — and he does.

Royal on the Park

The sultan’s Brisbane investment flew under the radar during the earlier protests. Other than a Bruneian national flag fluttering quietly alongside the Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags at the front of the hotel, there was no indication of his ownership. The hotel’s social media made no mention of the connection.

As QN Magazine broke the news of the hotel’s ownership last week, we emailed the hotel seeking comment. None was forthcoming. We also asked why the hotel deleted polite inquiries from its Facebook page about the ownership.

Again, no comment.

In light of the failure of the hotel to engage, we posted a further article highlighting the ludicrous fact that the hotel was using a long ago stay by Elton John to publicise its upcoming 50th birthday celebrations.

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The Facebook page featured a list of 50 Facts about the Royal on the Park. At number 9 it spruiked a previous visit of one of the celebrities leading the boycott of the Sultan’s hotels.

brisbane royal on the park elton john

“Elton John made a controversial choice in 1986 to check out of his accommodation at the Sheraton in exchange for a room at the then Parkroyal as he wanted a more “homey” room,” says the Royal on the Park Facebook page.

(If this wasn’t such a serious matter, we would pause to question the statement that the notoriously extravagant Elton John desired a more “homey” room.)

Nowhere in the list of the 45 of 50 facts published at that time was mention made of the Sultan’s ownership. Perhaps the PR team were saving that fact for Number One.

We doubt it.

Within an hour of QN Magazine publishing the story of the hotel using Elton John to promote their event, the hotel took down its social media. Later, the Dorchester Collection of hotels did the same.

Brisbane protest

No doubt the BIA will wait out the media storm once again. The Royal on the Park seems to be offering extremely reasonable room rates at this time so they will try to cover costs and when everyone’s attention turns elsewhere, quietly ramp up their trade to again pump profits into the sultan’s coffers.

In Australia, this will not be difficult. Media attention will soon turn elsewhere once the Prime Minister announces the federal election.

For that reason, protestors are quickly organising an event for outside the hotel this coming Saturday, April 13.

QN Magazine saw initial social media posts suggesting actions such as a fake stoning to bring attention to the new laws, but organisers have decided such an action might trivialise the issue.

Reaction within Brunei

Despite social media comment across the world disparaging Brunei as a barbaric country, Bruneians are a mostly tolerant people, highly educated and increasing despairing of the rule of their dictatorial monarch.

A formal study by the University of Brunei in 2011 found that parents of 62% of the gay men they surveyed were accepting of their sexuality, a surprisingly high percentage in a dictatorial Muslim country and discussions QN Magazine has had with Bruneians over the last week tend to confirm a tolerant society subject to an intolerant rule.

That figure is close to a survey this week of Bruneian Reddit users which found 68% of respondents disagreed with the new laws with 20% neutral leaving only 12% in favour.

The media in Brunei is under government control and there is no freedom of speech. Bruneian media have not yet announced the new laws and Bruneians only know of the laws because of their access to the internet but being accustomed to the censorship and propagandising of local media, they are avid users of the world wide web.

Social media is monitored in the sultanate. Shahiransheriffuddin bin Shahrani Muhammad, a Brunei government employee had to flee Brunei after a Facebook post critical of new halal fees.

The post resulted in a charge of sedition and a possible 10-year jail sentence. Shahiran is now seeking asylum in Canada and has come out as gay.

Bruneians do find ways to speak openly though anonymously using VPNs and hopefully secure social media channels.

One social media user asked recently, “So whose Bruneian born and bred son, daughter, husband, wife, grandchild, grandparents, neighbour will be the first to be stoned to death?

And which Bruneian soul is going to pick up that first stone to kill your fellow Bruneian?”

Where is Prince Aleem?

Dissent has not been limited to anonymous social media users though. Shortly after the laws became public knowledge Prince Aleem, a 21-year-old nephew of the sultan posted his opposition to the laws on Instagram, probably the first open dissent by a member of the royal family in decades.

“In light of the recent news surrounding Brunei, I feel as a Bruneian, I should address this.

“I have had so many messages surrounding this topic and I believe addressing it will hopefully put some light on the situation. All views are my own.

“Despite not being part of the LGBQT+ community myself, I have met so many people who are part of it. I can easily say they are some of the best and nicest people I’ve ever met.

“If we go back to 2013, the same article was present. From what I’ve been told, it may not be true, but I’ve been lied to and disappointed before.

“This, if this news is to be true, I will be very disappointed. No one should be judged and punished for living their life the way they want to live it. Those in the community deserves better and not to be treated like animals.

“We are all human after all.

“Why judge someone because of their race, religion and sexuality. It’s 2019 and the world hasn’t changed much. I do not understand some people and their ideology.

“You talk about human rights, but this is not human rights?

“By judging someone like this proves hypocrisy. I do not stand by it whatsoever.

“I am so sorry for those who are affected or feel looked down on.”

The post is somewhat remarkable because the prince’s uncle Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is an absolute dictator and dissension among the royal family is unheard of.

The post was quickly deleted, and Prince Aleem’s Instagram account taken down. However, before it was taken down it was liked by at least 66 people including Joe Cokanasiga, a member of the English national rugby union team who played rugby in Brunei as a 15-year-old when his father was stationed there as an officer in the British Army.

prince Aleem post

Prince Aleem also appears not to have been seen since the post. However, as a royal, Prince Aleem is exempt from the laws and will probably be only subject to a stern talking to.

As there has not been media coverage of the deleted post, the dictatorship will probably let it slide and not address it but if the international media does pick up on the story locals predict an abject apology from the young prince acknowledging the “error of his ways.”

The Royal Family

The Bruneian royal family are a special breed, and not held to the same laws the sultan imposed on his subjects.

The sultan’s younger brother Prince Jefri plundered nearly US$15 billion from the BIA a few years ago and although he was a wanted man for a while, he was eventually forgiven and now lives back in Brunei with all normal royal privilege.

A lot of the billions was spent on sex and drugs with runner up beauty queens from the US and around the world flown to Brunei to be part of the Prince’s harem, a harem many allege was also made use of by the sultan himself, once known far and wide as the Sultan of Swing.

Prince Jefri’s extravagances included a mega yacht called Tits with tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2. He spent a fortune commissioning life-size statue immortalising the sexual antics of himself and his American fiancé of the time.

Of course, such imagery could now be used as evidence to seek a penalty of death by stoning for both the prince and his fiancé, but only she would actually be at risk, with the prince exempt by virtue of royal birth.

A Gay Royal

QN Magazine does not put Prince Azim, apparently the sultan’s favourite son, at any risk by mentioning the speculation on his sexuality.

It has been all over the internet for years. Azim, worth US$5 billion himself, spends a lot of time out of the country arranging events, designing handbags and hobnobbing on the global social scene.

He has held parties with entertainment supplied by the likes of Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

In 2016, gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy posted a photo of himself, boyfriend Matthew Wilkas and Caitlyn Jenner at Azim’s birthday party but quickly deleted the post after comments questioning the judgement of LGBTIQ celebrities partying on Brunei’s dime.

Prince Aleem, nephew of the Sultan of Brunei

Distraction

Although the introduction of the laws is being presented as a staged implementation after being first announced in 2014, Bruneians speculate the timing has been contrived by both the Sultan and the Minister of Religious Affairs to distract from other issues.

Locals say the man once known as the Sultan of Swing has no real interest in religion — he cares about power. With dwindling natural resources, unemployment and growing dissent the Sultan can use the sharia law to quash dissent and consolidate power.

Economists predict that Brunei will run out of oil in the next few decades. Even the recent downturn in oil revenues has impacted on the Sultan’s ability to buy his subject’s acquiescence to his autocratic regime and signs of dissent have emerged.

His subjects also believe the law will be used against non-Malay Bruneians including stateless people amongst whose numbers are the indigenous people of the area.

Other religions are also targets. The celebration of Christmas has already been banned in Brunei and restriction placed on Chinese New Year.

The Minister of Religious Affairs, responsible for implementation of the laws has a massive personal interest in news headlines that distract from his own family woes.

In what is known locally as the “Bonnie and Clyde” case, the minister’s son and daughter-in-law are on trial for corruptly stealing millions from Brunei government coffers in their positions as judges.

The British role in Brunei Darussalam

Of course, as in many countries across the world, Brunei’s original laws regarding homosexuality came into being under British rule.

Britain controlled the originally much larger country of Brunei until 1984 as a protectorate. The laws on anal sex originate from the edicts of King Henry VIII who thought it was okay to chop women’s heads off so he could marry his latest sexual partner, but that other people should be more circumspect in their sexual behaviour.

The present Sultan Hassanal (and don’t Bruneians love the fact that the words ass and anal are part of that name) is able to wield absolute power because of a coup attempt during his father’s rule in 1962.

The British put down the coup on the Sultan’s behalf and the country has been under emergency rule ever since, including the entirety of Hassanal’s incumbency.

The British have maintained a contingent of Gurkhas in the country ever since and Hassanal has relied on their physical protection since his father’s abdication in his favour in 1967. The British relinquished the protectorate in 1984 but have extensive commercial links with the country.

The sultan maintains very cordial relationships with the British Royal family, attending the wedding of Prince William and photographed with the Queen on occasions since.

Britain supplies arms to the country and a minister of the UK foreign office, Mark Field said last week, “The Sultan of Brunei has been a great friend of this country over many years.

He has, I think, become a little more devout as he has got older, which is one reason why the sharia code—based, of course, on the Saudi Arabian sharia code—has been put in place.”
Perhaps Brexit has befuddled the minister.

Two systems of law

Brunei maintains a dual system of law with sharia and civil courts. The government appoints all magistrates and judges in both systems and there is no jury system.

The Chief Justice is a High Court of Hong Kong judge and the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court consists of three retired British judges.

Obviously, Britain has a massive investment in the sultan’s rule on many levels.

Keep up to date with all the news on Brunei here at QNews.com.au.

QN Magazine | For the latest lesbiangaybisexualtransgenderintersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.