Polity: Traditional monarchy
Population: 400,000
GNI/Capita: $16,779
Life Expectancy: 74
Religious Groups: Shafeite (67 percent), Buddhist (13 percent), Christian (10 percent), Indigenous beliefs and other (10 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Malay (67 percent), Chinese (15 percent), other (18 percent)
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change
Brunei's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to changes in the survey methodology.


Consisting of two enclaves on the northern coast of Borneo in Southeast Asia, Brunei has been under the absolute rule of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah since 1967, when the country was still a British protectorate. Since 1970, the sultan has ruled mainly by decree under constitutionally granted emergency powers. Those powers have been in effect since 1962, when British troops crushed a left-wing separatist rebellion. The British granted full independence in 1984.

The 1959 constitution provided for five advisory councils, although only two still meet: the Council of Ministers, stacked with the sultan's relatives, and the appointed Legislative Council. The only legal political party is the Brunei National Solidarity Party, an offshoot of a party that the sultan banned in 1988. Led by Haji Mohamed Attah, the party has pledged to support the government and does little more than hold periodic meetings.

Oil exports have given Brunei a per capita income rivaling that of many Western societies. Reserves are dwindling, however. In response, the fifty-six-year-old sultan, himself one of the world's richest men, has taken recent steps to diversify the economy and to trim government spending in order to reduce a chronic budget deficit. In a scandal that fueled public anger over the opulent lifestyles of royal family members, the sultan's brother, Prince Jefri, was accused of misappropriating nearly $15 billion of Brunei's foreign reserves following the 1998 collapse of the Amedeo Development Corporation, a large holding company that the prince headed. A case against Prince Jefri settled out of court in 2000.

The specter of Islamic extremism cast a pall over Brunei in 2002. While there was no public indication of specific threats, reports emerged that an Islamic group, Jemaah Islamiyah, seeks to destabilize Brunei and other Southeast Asian nations through terrorist attacks. Jemaah Islamiyah was implicated in the deadly October bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Brunei cannot change their government through elections. The sultan wields broad powers under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1962, and legislative elections have not been held since 1965. One of the few formal channels for citizens to convey concerns to their leaders is a traditional system under which elected village chiefs meet periodically with senior government officials.

The sultan promotes local culture and the primacy of the monarchy as the defender of Islam through an ideology called "Malay Muslim Monarchy." Critics say that the ideology is in part a ruse to ward off calls for democratization.

The government occasionally detains suspects under the tough Internal Security Act. Recent detainees included seven Christians, for alleged subversion; a leader of the 1962 rebellion after he returned from exile in Malaysia; and several citizens who distributed allegedly defamatory letters about the royal family and senior government officials regarding the collapse of the Amedeo company. All were released by the end of 2001.

Courts in Brunei generally "appear to act independently," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Sharia (Islamic law) supercedes civil law in some areas, such as divorce, inheritance, and some sexual crimes. It does not apply to non-Muslims. In civil cases, there is a right of final appeal to the Privy Council in London.

The government further restricted press freedom in 2001 with legislation that allows officials to shut down newspapers without showing cause and to fine and jail journalists who write or publish articles considered "false and malicious." The country's largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin, practices self-censorship, the U.S. State Department report said, but often publishes letters criticizing government policies. Another daily, the News Express, also carries some critical letters to the editor.

The Shafeite sect of Islam is the official religion in this predominantly Muslim country. The government restricts religious freedom for non-Muslims by prohibiting proselytizing, banning the import of religious teaching materials or scriptures such as bibles, and ignoring requests to expand or build new temples, churches, and shrines, the U.S. State Department report said. The government has voiced concern over Islamic fundamentalism, and one Islamist group, Al-Arqam, is banned.

In this highly traditional society, women have recently made gains in education and now make up nearly two-thirds of Brunei University's entering classes. Women who do not hold university degrees, however, can work for the government only on a month-to-month basis. This restriction does not apply to men and results in fewer benefits for women.

Moreover, Islamic law governing family matters favors men in divorce, inheritance, custody, and several other areas. The tudong, a traditional head covering, is mandatory for female students in state schools, though it is worn, in any case, by most women. Employers at times beat their mostly foreign female domestic servants, make them work long hours without rest days, withhold pay, or forbid them to leave home on their days off, the U.S. State Department report said. Officials generally investigate individual cases and punish offenders when complaints are brought, the report added.

Brunei's few trade unions are independent but not very active. The three registered unions are all in the oil sector, and their membership makes up less than 5 percent of that industry's work force. Strikes are illegal, although foreign workers in garment factories have carried out work stoppages to protest poor working and living conditions and forced payroll deductions for employment agents or sponsors. For local workers, however, wages and benefits tend to be generous. Moreover, education is free, medical care is heavily subsidized, and there is virtually no poverty except for small pockets in tiny villages in remote areas.

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