It was a rare occasion of the world sparing a thought for Brunei.
The country’s decision to implement the final two phases of the controversial Syariah Penal Code (SPC) in April this year led to the international community paying an unprecedented amount of attention. Western governments expressed concern and considered imposing sanctions, human rights groups rushed to issue statements condemning the introduction of laws they described as posing “grave threats to basic human rights”, and activists were joined by celebrities like George Clooney in calling for a revival of boycotts that first emerged following implementation of the first phase of the SPC in 2014. For its part, the foreign media developed an insatiable appetite for Brunei, with extensive coverage from major news outlets, including the BBC, CNN and Reuters.
Then, just as quickly as it had all begun, interest in Brunei seemed to vanish overnight.
Reporting the SPC implementation (or not)
Initially intended to be implemented in three distinct phases, the first phase of the SPC came into effect on 1 May 2014. The process then stalled; the government barely even mentioned the penal code for the next five years. In December 2018, a notice published on the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ website advised that the final two phases would be implemented in April 2019, no public announcement was made. Most Bruneians remained unaware of this impending development until the foreign media began reporting on it. Subsequently, the Prime Minister’s Office was forced to release a statement on 30 March 2019 confirming that implementation would take effect just four days later.
While Brunei’s attempt to secretly rush through final implementation of the SPC caught many off guard, not everyone was surprised. BruDollar*, a public servant in his 20s, told me:
We already had Phase 1 [of the Syariah Penal Code] dropped on us overnight [in 2014] so the shock and awe of it [was] pretty muffled. We knew it was going to be a three-part implementation so it’s not surprising that Phase 2 came—overdue in fact—but it was a surprise that it was done quietly and overnight. Now it’s business as usual and no one really talks about it.
That last sentence sums up how it would seem a majority of Bruneians feel about the SPC’s implementation. Despite all the noise from outside Brunei, there was widespread apathy within the country. While all of those I spoke with expressed concerns and didn’t support the implementation of the SPC, they also talked about a lack of demonstrable concern from the wider public.
Samrita,* a 17 year old student, says that this doesn’t necessarily mean that people support the laws; it likely stems more from a belief that they won’t be directly affected. She also points out that the lack of avenues for Bruneians to express opposition to government action has likely conditioned people to remain “neutral” by default. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, doesn’t hold elections, and civil liberties are very much restricted.
Brunei is an absolute monarchy, doesn’t hold elections, and civil liberties are very much restricted.
In an op-ed I wrote on freedom of expression in Brunei in June, I discussed how Brunei’s censored media typically steers clear of anything that may be deemed politically sensitive, or could create a negative impression of the country. This was again evident when it came to the SPC implementation.
Always careful to only report facts provided by the government, Brunei’s media failed to report on the impending implementation of the SPC until the Prime Minister’s Office released its statement. By that time the foreign media had already been reporting on it for a week, with continuous headlines like “Brunei to impose death by stoning for gay sex”, “Gay sex to become punishable with stoning” and “Brunei wants to punish gay sex with stoning”.
Not just about stoning and gay men
The international media’s characterisation of the Syariah Penal Code as being about stoning gay men to death was a source of frustration for many Bruneians. It was a sentiment shared by many of us who were in frequent contact with the media at the time of implementation. While we were often at pains to stress that human rights concerns surrounding the SPC extended well beyond that one law, our attempts to garner interest in other concerning aspects of the SPC were futile.
All of those interviewed for this piece agreed that this singular focus came at the expense of highlighting other equally important human rights issues impacted by the SPC, such as religious freedom, freedom of expression, women’s rights and the rights of the child. While the foreign media went into a frenzy over the possibility of gay men being stoned to death, very little mention was made of clauses in the penal code that provided the death penalty for those found guilty of apostasy (renouncing Islam). Few outlets noted that, under the SPC, children aged 15 and over can be sentenced to death, or that children as young as seven can be punished with whipping. Anyone found guilty of insulting or defaming the Prophet Mohammad may also be sentenced to death, and it’s a punishable offence for anyone to promote or spread any religion other than Islam. Any person who criticises or opposes any titah (decree) of the Sultan in his capacity as the Head of Islam in Brunei may be imprisoned for up to five years.
Samrita believes the media also missed an opportunity to draw attention to some of the more long-standing human rights issues in Brunei:
The media could have [better highlighted how Brunei] is not a democracy, but an authoritarian monarchy where people don’t get to have a say in the [making of] laws and people can face persecution for speaking out, so that people around the world could be more aware that the human rights issues in Brunei are systemic and a lot of action is needed to fundamentally change the system.
The international media wasn’t alone in its fixation with stoning; the same law also became the focal point of many activists. Virtually all the protests staged around the world focused on the treatment of Brunei’s LGBT community, rather than considering broader human rights violations within the SPC. Hollywood actor George Clooney, pointing to the potential stoning of gay men, became a poster boy for a resurgent boycott movement targeting the overseas business interests of the Brunei government, and called for a boycott of hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Agency. Clooney’s advocacy on the issue even saw a group of (non-Bruneian) LGBT+ activists start a campaign for him to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
Aside from overlooking the broader risk to human rights in Brunei, the narrow focus of the international community on the stoning law meant it was easy for Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to placate those campaigning against the SPC without really doing anything of substance. On 5 May 2019, just a month after the new laws came into effect, the sultan announced that Brunei’s longstanding de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include the SPC.
With that, the international campaign came to an abrupt halt. The boycott movement’s brief resurgence fizzled out, celebrities directed their attention elsewhere, and the plans of some foreign governments to enforce sanctions on the Brunei government were scrapped. Many of these campaigners treated the sultan’s announcement as a victory, but what did it actually mean for human rights in Brunei?
Brunei’s moratorium on the death penalty has been in place since 1957. It was likely that they would have extended this moratorium to the SPC even without the international outrage.
And even if they hadn’t, it was always extremely unlikely that this death-by-stoning law—the one that captured the imagination of the international community—would have been invoked. This is because of the law’s requirement that the offence must be witnessed by at least four Muslims deemed to be of good character, or be confessed to by the offenders. The likelihood that there would ever be four such witnesses to such an offence, or that the offenders would freely confess, is very low.
Rather, many Bruneians believe this and other laws in the SPC are simply for show, to portray Brunei as a pious Muslim country, or simply to act as a deterrent, without any intention of actually carrying out these punishments.
It is, of course, worrying that these laws exist in the first place. Although unlikely, there’s also no guarantee that they won’t ever be enforced. The de facto moratorium on the death penalty can be lifted at any time according to the whim of the sultan—in any case, prosecutors in Brunei continue to seek the death penalty for certain offences. But this must all be seen in the Bruneian context, so as not to reduce the country to a caricature that ends up obscuring a difficult reality.
Many Bruneians believe this and other laws in the SPC are simply for show, to portray Brunei as a pious Muslim country, or simply to act as a deterrent, without any intention of actually carrying out these punishments.
In any case, the extension of the moratorium on the use of the death penalty doesn’t address the myriad of other human rights concerns about the SPC, or the issues that pre-date it. Religious freedom, freedom of expression, women’s rights and the rights of the child remain at risk and continue to be violated in Brunei.
Despite the press and activist attention, very little has changed even for LGBT Bruneians. The country’s long history of criminalising same-sex relations remains intact. Homosexual acts remain punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment under laws inherited from British colonial rule. Other laws targeting the LGBT community in the Syariah Penal Code mean they’re still at risk of fines, whipping and jail sentences. These laws haven’t been used, but their presence—and the social stigma they legitimise—is enough to keep LGBT Bruneians anxious and silent. A piece published by New Naratif last year revealed that “Bruneian society has long projected the impression that just being queer is wrong” so that even many LGBT+ Bruneians themselves don’t realise that homosexuality itself isn’t criminalised.
Has the world forgotten Brunei too quickly?
The Bruneians I spoke to aren’t particularly surprised by how quickly Brunei has faded into obscurity on the world stage again. It isn’t the first time they’ve seen it happen; after all, this is also what happened following the implementation of the first phase of the SPC in 2014.
While many of those I spoke with acknowledge that all of the international media attention forced Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s government to publicly announce the SPC’s implementation and the extension of the de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty, BruDollar describes the international media frenzy that ensued as a case of them just wanting to jump onto “the latest shocking scoop and what else was better at that time than ‘Rich ruler wants to stone gays’ as the headlines?”
Zoe, a young Bruneian transwoman recently granted refugee status by the Canadian Government and who frequently spoke out against the SPC in the media at the time of implementation, feels that having high-profile celebrities like Clooney or Elton John publicly campaigning against the stoning law was important to generate international awareness of what was happening in Brunei. But other Bruneians felt it was opportunistic and motivated, to some degree, by self-interest. BruDollar accuses such celebrities of:
Jumping on the bandwagon to speak out and “support” these “oppressed” minorities to gain and save their waning popularity. Their involvement would have been more impactful if they actually visited and [saw] what it’s like here rather than spout things that the media had fed them.
Samrita agrees, describing Clooney’s involvement as being something of a “trendy project” for him “because the activism wasn’t continued and [made no positive gains] for the rights of marginalised communities in Brunei.”
She’s also disappointed that European governments, who’d passed a resolution in the European Parliament paving the way for sanctions to be imposed on Brunei because of human rights concerns over the SPC, failed to take further action following Brunei’s statement on the death penalty. Given all the concerns around free speech and the rights of marginalised communities in Brunei, Samrita argues that now is the time for the international community to be exerting its influence over Brunei to improve the rights of all Bruneians.
The narrow focus of the media and some activists on the stoning law meant that other sections of Bruneian society at risk from these laws were forgotten.
The stoning law that came into effect with implementation of the final phases of the Syariah Penal Code in April is horrendous and deserving of the outrage it generated. For such a law to exist, especially in a modern society such as Brunei, is horrifying. But it is just one of many laws within the SPC that puts Bruneians at risk and undermines Brunei’s human rights obligations under international law.
The narrow focus of the media and some activists on the stoning law meant that other sections of Bruneian society at risk from these laws were forgotten, while it also overlooked Brunei’s long history of criminalising homosexual activity with harsh punishments. It enabled Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to quickly douse the raging fury coming from abroad by announcing an extension of the de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty which, in turn, was hailed as a victory by some activists, before they quickly forgot Brunei again. For Bruneians, nothing positive has really come from all of the attention. Their rights and freedoms continue to be heavily restricted, while marginalised segments of Bruneian society aren’t at any less risk, despite the short-lived international outcry.
* Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.
Matthew Woolfe is the Australia-based founder of The Brunei Project, an independent initiative that raises awareness about human rights issues in Brunei.