Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Not Free
Life Expectancy: 74
Religious Groups: Muslim (67 percent), Buddhist (13 percent), Christian (10 percent), other [including indigenous beliefs] (10 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Malay (67 percent), Chinese (15 percent), other (18 percent)
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Following Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah's landmark 2004 announcement to revitalize Brunei's parliament (Legislative Council), which passed a constitutional amendment expanding that body via the addition of elected seats, the sultan dissolved the Council in September 2005. Meanwhile, an ongoing dispute with Malaysia over an energy-rich disputed territory continued during the year.
Consisting of two tiny enclaves on the northern coast of Borneo, Brunei is an oil-rich, hereditary sultanate that has been under the absolute rule of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah for nearly four decades. The 1959 constitution vested full executive powers in the sultan while providing for five advisory councils, including the Legislative Council. In 1962, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin annulled legislative election results after the leftist Brunei People's Party (BPP), which sought to end the sultanate, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. The BPP then mounted an insurgency that was crushed by British troops, but whose legacy is still felt today. Sultan Omar invoked constitutionally granted emergency powers, which remain in force, and began ruling by decree. That practice was continued by his son, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who became the twenty-ninth ruler in a family dynasty that has spanned six centuries, when his father abdicated the throne in 1967. The British granted Brunei full independence in 1984.
In 2004, the sultan reconvened Brunei's Legislative Council as part of a set of measures designed to "engage the citizens." Composed of relatives and those with proven loyalty to the sultan, the Council passed a constitutional amendment to expand itself to 45 seats, by adding elected posts to the appointed positions. The Council also passed a law allowing its members to express their opinions freely, though with the significant caveat that these should not be subversive in nature or in opposition to the sultan.
In September 2005, the sultan dissolved the Council and convened a new group with 27 appointed members, all either relatives or loyalists. As of November 30, there had been no discussion of implementing the provision to hold elections. Meanwhile, the Internal Security Act, which gives the sultan virtually untrammeled powers, remained firmly in effect.
Oil and natural gas exports to Japan and other countries have given Brunei a per capita income rivaling that of many Western societies. Food, fuel, housing, schooling, and medical care are either free or subsidized, and there is virtually no poverty except for small pockets in tiny, remote villages. As energy reserves diminish, the government has attempted to diversify its economy. The oil and gas sector's contribution to gross domestic product in 2005 was 44 percent, a significant increase over recent years.
The ongoing dispute with Malaysia over the contested oil- and gas-rich Baram Delta waters off the northern Borneo coast took on a new urgency with the discovery in March 2004 of deepwater oil at Gumusut, near the disputed territory. Negotiations with Malaysia may be more successful under that country's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, although significant areas of dispute remain. In view of the deadlock, both sides began to consider international legal adjudication of the matter, although there had been no real movement in this direction as of November 2005.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Brunei cannot change their government democratically. The sultan wields broad powers under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1962, and no legislative elections have been held since then. Lacking a more open political system, citizens often convey concerns to their leaders through a traditional system under which government-vetted, elected village chiefs meet periodically with top government officials. Lavish social spending and high incomes appear to compensate for these political restrictions, and there is little effort to defy prohibitions on political activity. The sultan promotes a combination of Islamic values, local Malay culture, and allegiance to the hereditary monarchy through a national ideology called "Malay Muslim Monarchy." Critics charge that the ideology is used to legitimize an undemocratic system and has alienated Chinese residents.
Now 59 years old and one of the world's wealthiest men, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah has made only the most superficial and cosmetic efforts in the direction of reform. The language of engaging citizens – the most common terms used to describe political reform – seems designed mainly to encourage broader international involvement in Brunei's economy and has done little to change the political system. In its second year, the 27-member unicameral Legislative Council continues to be entirely appointed and has no political standing independent of the sultan.
Two pre-2005 legal political parties, the Brunei People's Awareness Party (PAKAR) and the Brunei National Solidarity Party (BNSP) are largely inactive save for broad statements supporting the sultan. The BNSP is an offshoot of one of two parties banned in 1988. In 2005, the government permitted the registration of the National Development Party (NDP), headed by former political prisoner, exile, and insurgent leader Awang Muhammad Yasin Affendy bin Abdul Rahman. The NDP pledged to work as a partner with the government, and its leader swore an oath of loyalty to the sultan. Party activities in Brunei generally focus more on social than political issues because of the broad restrictions placed on political life.
Although hard data indicating high levels of corruption are scarce, the sultanate's vast wealth lends itself easily to profligacy among officials. The settlement of a major corruption scandal, involving the misappropriation of state funds by the sultan's brother, made headlines across the world in 2000. According to the 2005 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices, Brunei's claims of a zero tolerance policy on corruption have yielded disappointing results. In 2005, several low-level officials were convicted of corruption, though the trial of a higher profile official – a former minister of development – was not resolved by year's end. On the other hand, there is credible evidence of government efforts to conceal corruption. Brunei was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Legislation introduced in 2001 allows officials to shut down newspapers without demonstrating cause and to fine and jail journalists who write or publish articles deemed "false and malicious." Amendments to the national sedition law in 2005 strengthened prohibitions on criticizing the sultan or the national ideology. The largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin, practices self-censorship, though it does publish letters to the editor criticizing government policies. Media Permata is a smaller, Malay-language newspaper, and several Chinese-language newspapers are also published. The News Express was closed in 2002 after being sued by a private law firm for defamation. Brunei's only television station is state run, although Bruneians can also receive Malaysian television and satellite channels, which deliver international news channels. The government detained several Bruneians for publishing or distributing antigovernment materials on the internet in 2005.
The Shafeite sect of Islam, Brunei's official religion, permeates all levels of society in this predominantly Muslim country. While promoting Islam, Brunei's secular government has voiced concern over religious fundamentalism, and one Islamist group, Al-Arqam, is banned. The government restricts religious freedom for non-Muslims. It prohibits proselytizing, bans the importation of religious teaching materials and scriptures such as the Bible, and ignores requests to build, expand, or repair temples, churches, and shrines. Christian images or stories with Christian themes are the most common target of censorship in Brunei.
The study of Islam and Malay Muslim Monarchy are mandatory in schools, and the teaching of other religions is prohibited. In July, the sultan replaced Education Minister Abdul Aziz – who sought to establish a conservative Islamic curriculum in the schools – in favor of a minister who pledged to emphasize more general academic subjects that the government generally respects.
Freedom of assembly is restricted under emergency powers that have been in effect since 1962. Most nongovernmental organizations are locally based professional or business groups and must receive permission to operate under the Companies Act. All trade unions must be registered with the government. Brunei's three trade unions are all in the oil sector, but they represent less than 5 percent of that industry's workforce. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized. There was no union activity of any sort in the country in 2005.
Courts in Brunei generally "appeared to act independently," according to the U.S. State Department Human Right Country Report, despite the fact that the constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary. The legal system is based on British common law, although Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims, although a commission of lawyers has met throughout the year to integrate Sharia and non-Sharia law and to provide a single legal framework in the country.
While the government has faced few overt threats since the 1960s, authorities occasionally detain suspected antigovernment activists under Brunei's Internal Security Act. The act permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods. In 2005, several people were detained for making subversive, antigovernment comments in an internet chat room, while others were arrested, also on charges of subversion, for involvement in a counterfeit ring.
Freedom of movement of persons other than former political persons is not restricted. Most citizens enjoy reasonable personal autonomy, but many "stateless" people – mostly ethnic Chinese – are not accorded full citizenship status and thus lack rights, including the right to own land and to have access to subsidized medical care. Foreign workers, especially female domestic servants, are most likely to be subjected to economic exploitation.
Women remain unequal to men in areas such as divorce and inheritance, in accordance with Islamic law. Nevertheless, the number of women entering the workforce has increased substantially over the past several years. Women in government-run institutions must wear the tudong (a traditional head covering); many educational institutions also pressure non-Muslim students to wear it as part of a uniform. Although violence against women has been a problem, the government has made some attempts in the past year to address this issue. Starting in 2002, an amendment in the National Registration and Immigration Act allowed female Bruneian citizens to pass citizenship on to their children.
Disclaimer: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved
This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.