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Brunei's limited scope for change

BBC News - November 29, 2004

Humphrey Hawksley, Brunei Having married off its Crown Prince in September, one of the world's richest and most controlled countries has announced it will take a first step towards ending its autocratic style of government.

For the first time since independence from Britain in 1984, the tiny Sultanate of Brunei on the north coast of Borneo, has appointed a legislative council.

Its neighbours in South East Asia have developed faster than any other region in the world. Yet Brunei, an enclave on the north Borneo coast, has remained a near-forgotten backwater in fact, a pretty strange place all round.

In the 1990s, when the region began modernising, oil-rich Brunei didn't blink. It simply declared itself a Muslim monarchy, banned alcohol, and kept governing under an official state of emergency first brought in more than 40 years ago after an anti-monarchist uprising.

The threat is still seen as so acute, that no detailed map of the country is ever published. "No," said a book shop assistant without any irony. "We have no map because we are waiting for them to build the new roads."

Brunei's 350,000 people are ruled by decree of their absolute monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has been on the throne since 1967. Neither he, nor any of his officials, give interviews about how Bruneians are ruled. There are no elections, no free press, no open debate.

After more than two months of asking through the Bruneian High Commission in London, the only person we were officially allowed to talk to was a British former oil executive, eager to defend Brunei's style of government.

"If you ever come there during Hari Raya, after the Ramadan period, you will know that His Majesty meets with some 60,000 to 70, 000 people," said John Perry of the Brunei Economic Development Board.

"He will shake hands and talk to them. This is the sign of close contact with the community," he said. The announcement of a new legislative council, with 21 unelected members, does not seem to have percolated at the grass roots, nor has a promise of direct elections some time in the future.

Low expectations

On the water village of stilted houses which loops around the river front of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, few people had any details.

"No, I don't think we have one," said one man, asked if he had heard about the new parliament. "I'm not so sure," said a teenage schoolboy.

And when I asked HJ Saiyar Bin Salung, a public works department official, who was his favourite member of the legislative council, he replied. "All favourites. All favourites."

"And which ones don't you like," I pressed. "All we like. Because they are very good". "Would you like to vote them in?"

"Vote is not good. Because it makes people fight. We can see around the world so many countries have vote and not good. Brunei is very good."

Luckily, much of Brunei's population is guaranteed a high level of living from oil money, so the democratic issues on which blood is spilt in other places do not surface here. Or if they do, they are nipped in the bud.

"Is there anything you would like the government to be doing," I asked a couple in a garage workshop. At first silence, then, "no comment," said the man, who paused, thought, and added "Sorry, it is very difficult to say."

"It's not a very democratic system in Brunei, I'd be the first to admit it," says Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister of Australia one of the key countries which would be affected if Brunei became unstable.

"Brunei is run by a royal family and it is oil rich. It is a very small state. It doesn't have strategic importance the way Saudi Arabia does and the other thing is, I think the public are reasonably comfortable with the status quo."

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