On April 3rd, the Sultan of Brunei’s new criminal laws went into effect that make homosexuality, adultery, and abortion punishable by death by stoning, and make theft punishable by amputation of limbs. Under these laws, the punishment for lesbian sex is 40 lashes on a person’s body, and to make matters even more violent and cruel, these punishments will be carried out in public, witnessed by a group of Muslims to make a statement about these lifestyles that are looked down upon. The new laws formulated and implemented by the Sultan are based on Sharia law, and criminalize innocent people for living their lives according to their sexual orientations. Not only are these laws a blatant violation of Brunei’s human rights obligations under the United Nations (which abides by strict rules against the criminalization of innocent people, as well as bias and violence due to one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics), the implementation of these laws will give rise to even more hate against the LGBTQ community – a community that is already extremely vulnerable. The laws impose restrictive Islamic rules on the citizens of Brunei, and threaten violence and hate against certain communities of people, making them scared to leave their homes. Because Brunei is a sovereign and independent Islamic country, the Sultan can propose and enact these laws on his own accord; however, this does not mean that he is not facing immense amounts of backlash.
Brunei is a tiny island in Southeast Asia with a population of nearly 430,000 citizens, ruled by Sultan and Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkian. As one of the wealthiest people on earth, holding a net worth of $20 billion, the Sultan has a reputation for spending copious amounts of money on rare cars, luxury hotels, and other materialistic items. As such, these new laws are considered to be eminent of his attempt to appear stricter and clean up how the outside world perceives him. One article refers to the Sultan as the “godfather of excess,” known for their purchases of extravagant cars, giant yachts and “sexual exploits.” As a result, critics have hypothesized that “this move towards the most draconian form of Sharia law is a sign of the rising influence of conservative Islam across Southeast Asia – and an indication that the aging monarch wants to leave a religious legacy that seeks to compensate for his family’s controversies.” However, in his attempt to appear more serious and respectable as a ruler, the Sultan of Brunei is actively violating his country’s human rights responsibilities and threatening violence against groups of people based on sexual orientation.
Numerous celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, George Clooney, and Elton John came out with statements of strong disagreement in response to the laws that took effect last week. They have also taken to Instagram to call for people to boycott the nine luxury hotels that are owned by the Sultan, such as Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Due to the Sultan’s extreme wealth and concern with money, the ideal outcome of boycotting his hotels is that he will lose a large enough amount of money to realize that his laws are having a direct effect on his personal livelihood. Along these lines, George Clooney stated, “I’ve learned from years of dealing with murderous regimes that you can’t shame them … But you can shame the banks, the financiers and the institutions that do business with them ... Every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who chose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery.”
Celebrities such as DeGeneres and Clooney are not the only ones who have denounced the Sultan’s decisions; various political figures have as well. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz responded, “I call on the Sultanate of Brunei to withdraw the death penalty by stoning of homosexual acts between consenting adults … No one should be criminalized based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Furthermore, former Vice President Joe Biden claimed that “every single person on earth is entitled to be treated with dignity and to live without fear … There is no excuse – not culture, not tradition – for this kind of hate and inhumanity.” The laws created by the Sultan have put large groups of people’s lives in immense amounts of danger to the point where they fear for their lives, and as a result, various citizens of Brunei have fled the country in hopes of finding safety in exile. Zain, a transgender woman, fled Brunei in 2018 and is now living in exile in Vancouver, Canada. Zain has found safety and comfort in Canada, noting how open and accepting it is of people like her who are a part of the LGBTQ community. Zain remarked, “I wanted to live my life on my own terms … Everyone is affected. It’s just going to be a horrible life living there, even if you’re not LGBT.” In Canada, Zain is able to openly express her identity without fear of stepping outside and being pinned as a criminal. She is safe in Canada, and has hopes to inspire other at-risk Bruneians to flee the country as well instead of living life in constant fear of harm.