Brunei, a tiny sultanate on tropical Borneo island, found itself the target of worldwide condemnation yesterday after implementing an Islamic penal code that critics have labelled “barbaric”.
It includes punishments such as stoning to death for gay sex and adultery, and the severing of limbs for theft. It remains to be seen whether the sleepy country will carry out the harshest punishments given Brunei has long had capital punishment, but has not executed anyone for decades.
Here are some facts about the country, which is ruled by the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah:
The coastal sultanate, surrounded by Malaysia, was at its peak in the 15th century when it had an empire controlling large swathes of Borneo.
It declined as European powers extended their colonial rule across Asia, and in 1888 became a British protectorate. However, it was not subsumed into the new states that were formed during the colonial era and after World War II – as many sultanates in the region were.
The country gained full independence from Britain in 1984, and saw its economy grow at a rapid pace as it reaped the benefits of its abundant oil and gas reserves.
Brunei’s per capita GDP remains among the highest in the world due to its rich energy reserves. The government and government-linked institutions provide most employment, and its approximately 400,000 citizens enjoy generous state benefits.
But as the oil price collapsed a few years ago, energy-dependent Brunei was plunged into a lengthy recession.
The government has announced plans to diversify the economy, but analysts warn they have still not done enough and there is a risk they may not be able to provide the same sort of secure employment for young people as for previous generations.
The sultan is one of the world’s richest men and tales of the royal family’s extravagant lifestyles are the stuff of legend. He is reported to have a huge collection of luxury vehicles and his official residence – a vast pile that sits on a riverbank – is one of the world’s largest palaces, with about 1,800 rooms.
Vast wealth and excess
His playboy younger brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah has, however, attracted the most attention. He had a spectacular falling-out with Hassanal over allegations he embezzled billions during his time as finance minister in the 1990s.
Ensuing court battles and investigations shone an unwanted spotlight on the family’s vast wealth and excesses. The prince’s lavish lifestyle has been reported to include everything from gold toilet paper holders to harems of Western women and pornographic statues he kept at a property he owned in the US.
Shift towards hardline Islam
The new sharia penal code is the latest sign that Brunei, where about 80 per cent of the population is Muslim, is shifting towards hardline Islam.
The sultan announced the code in 2013 and the first phase came into effect the following year.
Fines or jail terms were introduced for offences including indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
The code was fully implemented on Wednesday, bringing into force the far harsher punishments, such as death by stoning for a number of offences.
As part of the hardline shift, Christmas celebrations were banned in 2015 with religious leaders warning that putting up festive trees and singing carols ran counter to Islam.
Analysts say the new code may be partly symbolic, as Hassanal is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials among conservatives and win more support amid concerns about the economy.
While there has been some criticism of the laws on social media in Brunei, many are believed to back them.