Brunei has climbed down after a sustained international campaign, saying it will not impose the death penalty for those convicted of having gay sex.
The austere interpretation of Islam, which may have been relevant to the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, is deeply out of step with modern human rights.
And Brunei’s pious proclamations about sharia law provide an alarming contrast with the extravagant personal life enjoyed by its ruling family.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah addressed the nation on Sunday, saying he would extend a moratorium on capital punishment and ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture.
In April the oil-rich sultanate said it would impose sharia law, including death by stoning for those having gay sex, adulterers, those who insult the Prophet Mohammad and rapists.
George Clooney, Elton John and other celebrities joined rights groups in seeking to boycott luxury Dorchester Collection hotels owned by the sultan. JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank told staff to avoid using Brunei-owned hotels.
Brunei was the first East Asian state to introduce sharia law at a national level in 2014 with last month’s announcement due to boost punishments.
Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei and punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Muslims make up about two-thirds of Brunei’s population of 420,000.
While execution is still on the statute books for some crimes, no state killings have been carried out in Brunei since 1957.
Brunei said the laws “stipulate the death penalty for offences such as rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations for Muslims, robbery, and insult or defamation of the Prophet Mohammad, among others.
“It introduces public flogging as a punishment for abortion, and amputation for theft. It also criminalises exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.”
Those convicted who have not reached puberty may be spared death and instead face whipping.
Despite statements from the sultanate that the punishments were focused “more on prevention and punishment”, the high-profile backlash appears to have forced a U-turn.
In Sunday’s announcement, the sultan said there were “misconceptions” about stoning his subjects to death for “crimes” that are not regarded as criminal activity elsewhere.
Bolkiah told the nation that the changes may have caused “apprehension”.
“However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident,” he said.
Despite imposing brutal punishments on his subjects, the sultan’s family has indulged in numerous indiscretions. His big-spending brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, has been known to fly in aeroplanes full of women who he showered with gifts.
The prince has five wives – two of whom he has divorced – and 18 children.
Jefri has purportedly kept a harem of up to 40 women and was accused of embezzling around US$14.8 billion during his 13 years as Brunei’s finance minister.
The prince in the Islamic monarchy has apparently hosted women on his yacht called “Tits”, which has lifeboats called “Nipple 1” and “Nipple 2”.
His assets were frozen in 2000. Before that Jefri had “probably gone through more cash than any other human being on earth”, Vanity Fair said.
The use of state assets to buy luxuries like yachts is instantly reminiscent of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in neighbouring Malaysia.
It points to a problem that affects most Asean members: an unaccountable ruling class is allowed to squander the people’s wealth while facing no electoral sanction.
It is to Malaysia’s credit that an opposition party managed to overcome intense gerrymandering in favour of United Malays National Organisation, which had dominated the country’s politics since independence from Britain in 1963. Only then was the ruling party called to account for the alleged theft of US$4.5 billion from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
In Myanmar, an oligarchy of army officers divide up the country’s oil, gas and mineral wealth between them and use tailor-made laws to prosecute anyone who questions their abuse of power.
In Cambodia, another one-party state crushed the only opposition party as soon as it threatened Prime Minister Hun Sen’s grip on power.
No one is allowed to question the ruling communist parties in Laos and Vietnam.
Thailand’s monarchy and military elite have refused to accept any democratic challenge to its dominance, toppling elected governments in 2006 and 2014.
Feeble coalitions, financial mismanagement and rising populism have left western countries reeling between perpetual crises in recent years, raising serious questions about the model of parliamentary democracy.
But there is clearly a need for populations to be able to hold their leaders to account.
Brunei is happy to pass legislation allowing the whipping of children while a member of its royal family is allowed to own a yacht called “Tits”. Its rulers should be asked to win the democratic consent of Brunei’s citizens.
Brunei’s royalty lives in comfort. Picture credit: YouTube