Setback for Asean as Brunei Adopts Shariah Law in Shock for Human Rights

By Alan Morison

PHUKET: Brunei is a dot on the map of Borneo, the smallest member of Asean and one of the smallest countries in the world. From May 1, it is adopting criminal shariah law.

There was a time when Brunei made international headlines because the Sultan of Brunei once ranked as world's richest man. His brother Jefri made news for spending the money in profligate fashion as fast as Brunei was able to make it from vast oil reserves.

Perhaps the next time Brunei makes news will be when a thief loses an arm or an adultress is stoned to death. Just why Brunei has chosen to adopt shariah law is a mystery.

Eight years ago, when I was part of a team that helped start a daily broadsheet newspaper there for the Sultan's 60th birthday, Brunei did not seem a place of extremes, but of moderation. 

Violent images were banned from the pages of 'The Brunei Times' to the point where even a photograph of Johnny Depp holding a sword to promote 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was considered too extreme.

The Bruneians I met were delightful, moderate people. Many of them had been educated in the West. But television was monopolised by items about the royal family. A new ''Parliament'' was being built, but everyone knew that was a farce.

The Sultan and his family ruled, and that was that. The harshest thing that could have been said about Brunei was that it could effortlessly be described as the most boring country in the world.

Behind the scenes, though, we could only guess at the influence of Brunei's Imams. 

At the time, the capital, Bandar Seri Bagawan, had more video shops per block than any city on the planet. With alcohol and nightlife banned, watching movies was about as exciting as life ever got in Brunei. 

Reports indicate that crime and drug use are on the rise, just as they have been from time to time everywhere else in the world. The prospect of Brunei introducing the cruel punishment of shariah law yet never cutting off a hand or stoning an adultress to death seems remote. 

My educated, worldly workmates in Brunei must be appalled, but powerless as always. A call is going out now to boycott Brunei. The small country's Royal Brunei Airlines is likely to find itself deserted, except for Bruneians who are obliged to use it. 

How Asean and the world react to Brunei's backward step will become apparent in the next few days. Already there's a massive outcry that can only further isolate the small, quirky nation. 

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch had this to say: "Brunei's decision to implement criminal shariah law is a huge step backwards for human rights in the country. 

''It constitutes an authoritarian move towards brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the 21st century. 

''The entire world should express its outrage and heap criticism on this ill-considered move and urge the Brunei government to immediately reconsider. 

''Implementing such a cruel, rights abusing law on May Day, a day that celebrates solidarity of humanity in common work-related endeavor, is a clear indication of Brunei's willingness to disregard basic human rights and denigrate human sensibility.''

 Source: Phuket Wan