Brunei Darussalam: Disturbing Developments Abroad Impact During The First Quarter 2003


Dr AVM Horton

Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD) found itself in an ambivalent position with regard to the military conflict in Iraq during March-April 2003. The sultanate's consistent line since independence in 1984 has been that international disputes should be settled peacefully by diplomatic means, if necessary within the framework of the United Nations. There were concerns that a war in Iraq would serve to create lasting hostility further hardening the terrorist agenda. People in NBD held fears for the safety of civilians in any war and favoured, in His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's words, 'a just and lasting end to the suffering of the Palestinian people'. Therefore, NBD's stance toward the war in Iraq has been closer to that of the Chirac-Schröder-Putin alliance as opposed to that of the Bush-Howard-Blair grouping.

Yet, as a potentially vulnerable oil-rich sultanate in a region of much bigger and poorer neighbours, NBD as a matter of common sense and national security needs continually to identify reliable strategic allies for the future.

NBD's links with 'secularist' Iraq have been minimal. The two countries have diplomatic relations, but only on a non-resident basis through the Iraqi Ambassador based in Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile the sultanate has developed relations with monarchical states such as Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah paid State visits to Kuwait and Iran in February 1994, but did not include Baghdad in his itinerary; similarly in September 2002 (when His Majesty was in Syria) and in March 2003 (when His Majesty attended an OIC summit in Qatar). Conversely, the sultanate has had close defence ties with the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom – seen by many Muslims as the 'imperialist aggressors' involved in the 'attack on Islam' in Iraq, but, of course, realistically countries to which NBD would likely turn in the event of any foreign occupation of its own territory. (Indeed, it was Australia which liberated Brunei from Japanese occupation in 1945.) With a tightrope to walk, the NBD government has resorted to a classic fallback position: the establishment of a 'humanitarian fund' for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Links with France, including defence ties, though, are also becoming closer.

The other major international disturbance of the year so far has been the SARS outbreak. No case of infection has been yet reported in NBD as of the end of April 2003; and strict precautions are being taken to maintain this status, including making SARS a 'notifiable disease' with effect from 19 March. Nevertheless, the epidemic has impinged upon the sultanate in various ways, with rumours circulating and even some panic concerning the safety of NBD children being educated in affected countries (such as Singapore), disruption of travel plans, cancellation of flights by Royal Brunei Airlines, retrenchment of hotel staff, and postponement of a conference for South-East Asian Librarians.

A major development has been the shock announcement on 2 February of divorce proceedings between Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and His Majesty's concomitant second wife, HRH Pengiran Isteri Hajjah Mariam, after more than twenty-one years of marriage. There is to be a cooling-off period of one hundred days before the next stage in divorce proceedings. No reason for the break-up has been published. Meanwhile, the Pengiran Isteri has been stripped of all titles awarded to her by the Sultan and the public has been ordered to remove all her portraits, even from their own homes. As the mother of four of His Majesty's children, however, it is difficult to see how she can be rendered a complete non-person. (His Majesty remains married to his first wife, HM Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajjah Saleha).

Further developments in brief have been: (1) NBD and Zambia established diplomatic relations on 3 February 2003; (2) in March HRH Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah paid an official visit to New Zealand and then to Australia, where he met Governor-General Hollingworth and Prime Minister Howard. His Royal Highness considers Australia to be a 'good neighbour' and a country which has contributed a great deal to the development of the Asia-Pacific region (Pelita Brunei, 26 March:12). (3) On 1 March Pehin Ahmad Wally Skinner, Deputy Minister of Finance since 1986, retired 'on age and health grounds'. (4) On 28 March Pehin Major-General Halbi Mohd Yusof succeeded Pehin Major-General Mohd Jaafar Abdul Aziz as Commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. (5) On 10 March the Brunei National Petroleum Company signed a production-sharing agreement with a consortium of three foreign companies, TotalFinaElf Deep Offshore Borneo BV, BHP Billiton, and Amerada Hess. (6) The NBD economy was expected to grow by five or six per cent during 2003 (according to the Borneo Bulletin online, 11 April).

WATCHPOINT: Developing links between NBD and France deserve further attention.


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