An interesting tidbit from the uproar surrounding the implementation of the Syariah Penal Code (SPC) on 3 April is that many from the Bruneian LGBT community and the general populace first found out about it through the anger emitted from international news outlets.
Locally, if you scrolled through the few news sites too casually, you might miss the one article each outlet put out to report the announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office. There is no mention of “LGBT” or really much of anything about what the penal code will encompass in any off the local news coverage, and local attention has focused on the backlash regarding LGBT rights.
Suddenly in the spotlight
It’s probably not a surprise that the response was first shock at the attention, then defensiveness against the kind of attention we were getting. It’s an odd experience to see your country—usually rarely on the international media’s radar—suddenly condemned by the world, before you’ve even fully understood why.
Brunei is a tiny country in Southeast Asia, ruled by Sultan Hassanah Bolkiah. There are no elections. While the royal family has been able to provide its citizens with numerous services such as free healthcare and education, affordable national housing and subsidies for fuel and foodstuffs, it’s difficult for Bruneians to participate in advocacy and activism. A combination of fear and comfort have dissuaded most from being too outspoken about national issues. These are the realities within the country. Ordinary Bruneians have had basically no say about the implementation of the SPC.
The international community is able to talk about and criticise the SPC in ways that local groups are not, but it falls short in its support of the Bruneian LGBT community
The international community is able to talk about and criticise the SPC in ways that local groups are not. But it falls short in its support of the Bruneian LGBT community through who they have given space to speak, and how Brunei is spoken about as an independent nation. The loudest voices are those who are confident the SPC won’t affect them: the Muslim conservatives, of which there are many, and moderate Muslims, who, by cultural upbringing and systemic religious education, Westerners would probably consider conservatives anyway. They have the privilege of being able to choose whether or not to care about this syariah penal code.
Some Bruneians defend the implementation, others don’t think it matters at all, and the rest who consider themselves allies of the LGBT community choose their words carefully. This last group of people find themselves treading the fine line of stating their support for LGBT people while also not stating their opposition to the penal code.
Who speaks (and who doesn’t) in the Bruneian LGBT community?
In Brunei, the LGBT community practices a learnt silence.
Yet there are different degrees of silence, and intersections of gender, wealth, and race exist here too. As evidenced by the Bruneian sources many foreign sites have quoted, Malay men who are part of the ethnic majority and have the economic ability to leave the country tend to speak louder and more often than others.
Is it more dangerous now to go out in Brunei as an LGBT person than the day before the news broke? Not much has visibly changed in public day-to-day life. The social media sphere is still active and bustling.
It’s hard to say what’s changed in everyday life, really, but sensationalist headlines from various international publications make it seem as if everyone visibly not cisgender and/or heterosexual is suddenly in danger of being brutalised or killed. Those who do not have to hide behind pseudonyms, and analysts who only look at the country from a distance, can make anyone believe they represent the community and that their voices matter the most. But they are merely the easiest to get a quote or two from.
The international media is ignoring the voices of those who are harder to reach
The international media is ignoring the voices of those who are harder to reach, and this reliance on convenience has only turned up pieces that portray Bruneian and LGBT lives as little more than shoddy sketches of a country already exoticised by default. This is where the lack of consistent coverage of and interest in Brunei has come back to bite the international press; now that a big story has broken, many members of the foreign press simply lack the context, understanding and contacts to dig beneath the surface. Parachute journalism, even by the most experienced and well-meaning of correspondents, can usually only get one so far.
As the backlash persists, if sources continue to come from those in more privileged positions, others like women and trans people will not only be spoken over, but also spoken for, furthering the oppression that the world is apparently outraged by. If foreign reporters are keen to get the story from those in the country, they need to try harder to get more inclusive and nuanced narratives than what’s easily presented to them.
The use of language
Then there’s the issue of the way language is used in these international reports. Most articles depict Brunei through a Western imperialistic lens. The term “barbaric”, which was used historically to describe colonised countries as a way to Other native communities and justify oppression, is liberally used. And while Brunei is a sovereign nation, Britain is constantly referred to as a “former master” that needs to take the lead to reign in its former domain. Rarely is it mentioned that the legacy of outlawing homosexuality in Brunei, and many other countries around the world, comes from the British colonial era in the first place.
It’s ironic that the international outcry against the targeting of Brunei’s LGBT community has had the effect of making all Bruneians a little nervous. Bruneians abroad have reported on social media being targeted with harassment over the SPC. The Brunei Student Union in London sent out an email shortly after the implementation of the SPC was announced advising students to be proactive in keeping up with current events, take precautionary measures, and avoid crowded gatherings.
On social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, the local reaction to the coverage can be generally described as “exasperated”. No one is very impressed with the celebrity-led boycott against hotels essentially owned by the Brunei royal family; most in Brunei don’t understand how it’ll help. In fact, the boycott feels underwhelming and stinks of a white saviour complex.
The relentless and scathing commentary was supposed to shed light on and fight for a voiceless and marginalised community in Brunei. Instead, it now feels like there’s an online mob seeking to shame us into a submission of another kind, under conditions we have as much power over as we did over the implementation of the SPC—which is to say, none at all.
As an already vulnerable group prone to being the scapegoat, there are fears that those feeling stung by the continued international criticism will begin pinning the blame on the LGBT community instead.
Privilege is a multilayered beast even within a silenced subset of people
If the international community actually wants to support LGBT people in Brunei, it has to first try to understand us. Solidarity can only work when the narrative of imperialism does not dominate the conversation; support is only genuine when it isn’t coming down from a perch of largely white superiority.
Privilege is a multilayered beast even within a silenced subset of people. Talk to LGBT Bruneians from our various intersecting identities and ensure that local narratives are represented.
If the world is unwilling to let our government use the excuse of “this is how we do things” in its treatment of LGBT people in Brunei, then we, the people from within that community, should also be able to denounce the homogenised way our stories are being told.