Over the last fortnight, QN Magazine broke a number of stories related to the action of the Sultan of Brunei introducing penalties such as whipping, amputation and death by stoning into his small South-East Asian realm. Tomorrow, Boycott Brunei in Australia are holding a rally in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens opposite the Brunei-owned Royal in the Park Hotel to protest the laws.
Brunei’s new laws are neither the laws of a religion, nor of a country. They are the laws of one man, Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s all-powerful dictator.
Nor are the laws about morality – they are about power and control.
The Sultan and royal family’s history of flouting the very sexual mores he is criminalising are well documented.
How wealthy is Brunei?
The sultan is an autocratic ruler and worried about his position. Oil revenues are in decline.
Hassanal has relied on those revenues for years to bribe his people to leave him in control and tolerate his obscene squandering of their national wealth.
It is usually assumed the Sultan’s wealth insulated him from the effects of boycotts and protests. It is often stated that the sultan has a personal wealth of US$20 billion and control on the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) worth an additional US$40 billion.
Oil provides the Sultan with an annual income of about UD$2 billion and that income is thought to have made the BIA a long-term investment — a mere financial dalliance for now — not required to perform until 2035 when the oil runs out. Indeed, the investment arms of the BIA tout that they are designed for long term returns.
However, declining oil prices in recent years have seen economic problems arise in various oil producing nations. The people of Venezuela enjoyed an enviable standard of living just a few short years ago and are now starving.
Venezuela is important to this topic. Brunei is thought to have just over 1 gigabarrels of oil remaining, small by world standards, but a lot for a country of less than half a million people. Venezuela however, with the world’s largest known reserves, has over 300 gigabarrels remaining.
When Venezuela finally finds its way to a political solution, we can surmise they will sell that oil for whatever they can get for it to rebuild their country, sending world prices into further decline, exacerbating financial problems in countries such as Brunei.
Additionally, oil becomes more expensive to extract as supplies deplete, eventually costing more to take from the ground than it sells for.
Without oil revenues the sultan will need a return on the BIA, but is there a return to be had?
Court documents show that the sultans brother Jefri squandered nearly US$15 billion of the BIA’s funds when he was in control a few years ago — an unbelievable amount of the money spent on sex workers, drugs and other wild extravagances.
Billions more proved to be untraceable. When another brother replaced Jefri, he immediately stole another US$2 billion.
The neglect of some of the sultanate’s investments raises more questions. A prime block of land on Queensland’s Gold Coast said by the Courier-Mail to be worth $30 million has sat untouched since the sultan purchased it in 1997.
Likewise, a compound in an upmarket residential area of Singapore, abandoned now for three decades among the large expensive mansions of one the world’s most expensive cities.
In Brunei itself, many government buildings and complexes suffer from a lack of maintenance and others are simply abandoned. Stories circulate of cars from the world’s most exclusive collection, which includes 500 Rolls Royces, sitting in the weather to rust for years.
The BIA is probably the world’s least transparent sovereign wealth funds, but are its other assets looked after any better than those that are publicly known?
The British who held Brunei as a protectorate until 1984 set up the BIA before they left. Analysts calculate that the fund is currently worth no more than if the sultan had merely left the money in the bank.
Recently the Chinese constructed a highway in Brunei, causing quiet dissent among the population and causing some to ponder why such a wealthy country needed such largesse, more often seen in third world countries.
A comparative restraint in the sultan’s spending in recent years may indicate declining financial fortune.
Once famed for his lavish expenditure on parties he has recently reigned in costs. He once handed Whitney Houston a blank cheque in return for a performance to fill in as she saw fit. She decided her singing warranted a payment of US$7 million.
However recently family celebrations have seen economies in spending with the fireworks for one more recent royal wedding sponsored by an oil company.
Will the new laws be enforced?
Brunei’s foreign minister has told British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt that gay people are “unlikely” to be stoned to death despite the new laws, an argument mounted by many people both inside and outside Brunei.
However, the history of the implementation of the laws would suggest otherwise. The Sultan introduced the laws through a staged implementation, with lesser offences criminalised first.
The first person to fall victim to the laws was an Indonesian man caught smoking in public during daylight hours during Ramadan.
In 2016 Australian Tony Scott, coach of the Brunei Lawn Bowls team, fell in love with his star female player, a local Muslim.
Jealous teammates reported the couple and 20 Sharia police raided Scott’s home in the middle of the night charging the pair under Sharia law with ‘confinement’ — meaning an unmarried man and woman alone together without a chaperone.
The couple pled guilty to the charge and fled to Australia, incurring $150,000 in expenses including legal fees.
The people in real danger however are not smoking Indonesians or love-smitten Aussies with other homelands to flee to. The real danger is to Bruneian men, women and children, the subjects of an all-powerful dictator, desperate to retain wealth and power.
They are the people who may end up, in the case of women, buried up to their armpits in the ground with a self-righteous crowd of self-righteous religious hypocrites hurling stones at their heads until death.
Will protests and boycotts work?
Writing for The Conversation this week, Paula Gerber, Professor of Human Rights Law at Monash University, argued boycotts won’t work and instead pressure needs to be brought to bear on the sultan by governments and regional and international organisations.
However, governments in particular generally apply pressure to other governments in response to pressure from their own citizens.
The Australian government for example did nothing to alleviate the suffering of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru until the public pressure became overwhelming.
If global citizens who believe in human rights sit quietly and meekly by and wait for governments to act, the first real response will be on the occasion of the first stoning.
So far, the Australian government’s response to these barbaric laws has been underwhelming to say the least, with the Queensland government showing the greatest degree of moral courage by stopping proposed Royal Brunei Airlines flights into Brisbane.
The response of the UK government has at times been apologetic and dismissive of the import of the laws.
Of course, the UK enjoys good trade with Brunei, large investment in their country by the BIA, a ready market for armaments and the British supply the contingent of Gurkha’s who guard the sultan and the three judges of the Brunei High Court of Appeal.
Additionally, sources within Brunei indicate a sultan and minions blind-sided by the response the laws, having quietly implemented the latest stages under the assumption they suffered little from the protests and boycotts a few years ago and had probably seen the worst of it.
Sources within the administration indicate Bruneian embassies worldwide were left with no response to the new laws with no talking points forwarded from Brunei up until a few days ago.
In Brunei itself, other than the quiet listing of the laws on a government website, no announcement has been made and Bruneians are mainly aware of the laws through their access to the internet.
People inside Brunei believe the global response to the laws has rattled the sultan and his sycophantic advisors and point out that they rely on outsiders to publicise the laws.
Dissent is not tolerated in Brunei, evidenced by the deletion of the Instagram account of Prince Aleem of Brunei who argued against the laws.
Two years ago, a gay Bruneian public servant who posted on Facebook against the introduction of new halal charges under Sharia law was charged with sedition and the law changed to make him liable to ten years imprisonment. He fled the country and is now a refugee in Canada.
The media in Brunei is government owned and strictly toes the government line.
There is a surprising glimmer of hope from neighbouring Malaysia.
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, speaking yesterday on the subject of Malaysia’s own royals, cautioned about giving power to royals.
“They may put their own interests before their states,” he said, “It has happened many times before.”
While Mahathir was speaking in a local context, he is a wily politician and well aware of the regional implication of his words.
Where to now?
In Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, two nights ago, there were 100 profiles active on Grindr, most without a profile picture.
With no LGBTIQ organisation or venues, LGBTIQ people have few options in Brunei and, as LGBTIQ people have done all through history, they take phenomenal risks in search of companionship, love and intimacy.
However, who knows what danger Grindr is to them? Of course, they run the predictable danger of the Sharia police themselves using the app to track down gay men, but additionally Grindr is now owned by a Chinese company, the security of its data is questionable, and the Chinese government is cultivating the sultan.
Khairul, a 19-year-old gay Muslim man from Brunei told Reuters, “I am scared. The fear of dying has become a reality, while the hope of being accepted by family is now just a dream.”
We can help, by protesting and boycotting and pressuring governments to do everything possible to bring the autocratic dictator of Brunei back to reality and show him that in today’s global world, there are consequences.
Boycott Brunei in Australia protest in Brisbane Botanic Gardens Saturday, April 13 from 1pm. More details are available at the Facebook event here.