The last time the doctor visited Brunei a bunch of British soldiers got off the plane… which may not seem relevant to Brunei Darussalam’s new penal code, but it is. The new code imposes the death penalty for some forms of robbery and rape, and for insulting the Prophet whether by Muslims and non-Muslims. It also punishes Muslims and non-Muslims for dissemination of non-Islamic beliefs (importing a bible is a crime).
The Sultan has just, in the face of international celebrity-led condemnation, promised that the death sentences for ‘crimes’ like adultery and being gay will not be carried out, but this offers only partial comfort. Muslim women will be punished for pregnancy outside marriage (although doctors in Brunei have long been obliged to report any unmarried pregnancies to the authorities, and pregnant foreign workers, often coerced by employers, are jailed or deported). Extramarital sex and anal sex will still be punished, albeit not with death by stoning, but stealing may still result in amputation, and lesbian sex in 40 lashes. Bruneian doctors report that a single lash takes a long strip of skin off the back. A doctor stands by to determine whether the prisoner is fit for the punishment to continue. Nobody talks about it.
What is the Sultan doing? Could it be that he wishes to demonstrate his ever fuller alignment with those delightful paragons of human rights, the Saudis? By imposing Sharia and choosing his friends he can perhaps minimise any fears that revolution may take his 7000 cars from him. How can you rebel against a Sultan who does the Will of Allah? Subjecting his entire population to Game of Thrones style justice must seem a small price to pay to keep his 134 Aston Martins. Saudi national day is now celebrated in Bandar Seri Bagawan with almost as much splendour than the Sultan’s birthday. One wonders how they felt about Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of dissidents last month.
Why does anyone stay? Brunei is a comfortable country for those that comply. Education and healthcare are fully funded, petrol is cheaper than water, the average family has five cars and life is dominated by flattering news about the Royal family, endless feasting and bizarre social obligations. Public servants are obliged to turn up for the many Royal birthdays whatever their conflicting work and home demands. Women attendees are told how they must dress and are signed in on arrival. Their jobs and social standing depend on being good citizens. Once in, if they have work to do, they join an orderly queue of women waiting to climb out of the lavatory window. But the people are like the proverbial frogs in hot water. Hassan Bolkiah holds his small country in a grip of iron. He owns it. Public gatherings have been forbidden for years. Censorship is heavy – try googling the Sultan and harems from your Brunei hotel. It is not permitted to stand at concerts. Alcohol is forbidden. Abortion is criminalised. This is a nanny state with a dark side.
Meanwhile out in the Bruneian jungle the British Army hones its jungle skills in silent implicit support. Why?