April 17, 2019 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
More LGBTI Bruneians speak out against country’s penal code
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei (Photo by Bernard Spragg via Flickr)

Two LGBTI Bruneians with whom the Washington Blade spoke on Saturday said their country’s new penal code that calls for the death penalty for anyone convicted of same-sex sexual relations continues to spark fear.

A gay man who asked the Blade not to publish his name said during a WhatsApp interview from Bandar Seri Bagawan, the Bruneian capital, that he was “freaked out” when the provision took effect on April 3. The man said he did not go to school on Saturday, in part, because police officers were participating in a career day.

“Anyone would freak out initially, but as the days go on, they don’t really want to enforce that type of punishment because of the international backlash,” he said. “The international media is already getting into it, calling out Brunei. If Brunei tries to enforce that type of the law, of course they’re going to get into more trouble.”

Brunei’s penal code, which also criminalizes apostasy and adultery, began to take effect in 2014.

The State Department, openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are among those who have sharply criticized the penal code, which is based on Shariah law. George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres and other celebrities have called for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel and other properties that Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei owns.

The Bruneian government in an April 7 letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights defended the penal code. The gay Bruneian man with whom the Blade spoke on Saturday said his country’s government “tried to implement this without getting caught, which obviously didn’t work.”

“It got real,” he said.

He added Bolkiah implemented the penal code as a way to exert further control over his country’s population. A transgender Bruneian woman with whom the Blade spoke agreed.

“I knew it was going to happen sometime in the future because the sultan wanted more control and power over the population and religion for him would be the best tool for it,” she said during a WhatsApp interview from Canada. “But personally, it sucks my friends back there would basically be criminals under Shariah law.”

“It’s just that they’re basically waiting to be found,” she added.

The trans woman, who also asked the Blade not to publish her name, said she flew to Vancouver last November. She said she decided to seek asylum in Canada because of the country’s human rights record and Trudeau’s immigration policy.

“I’ve always wanted to leave Brunei as soon as possible and as far as possible,” said the trans woman, noting it was impossible for her to transition in Brunei. “They would punish anyone or stone anyone who is an apostate, which is someone who left Islam.”

She said Brunei was always “a repressive country before” the penal code’s implementation, even though oil and gas deposits have made the country one of the wealthiest in the world.

The State Department’s 2018 human rights report notes “violence or threats targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex (LGBTI) persons including intimidation by police,” the exploitation of foreign workers and “substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association” are among the human rights concerns in Brunei. Bolkiah and his family have also faced questions over their lavish lifestyle and reports that his brother had a harem of dozens of women.

“Even without Shariah law, Brunei would still be a repressive and oppressive nation,” said the trans women.

The gay man in Bandar Seri Bagawan with whom the Blade spoke said he will leave Brunei if “it becomes dangerous for me as an LGBT (person.)” In the meantime, he said he hopes Bruneians will begin to understand the penal code’s impact on the country.

“In the best-case scenario, I hope that the people are starting to learn the consequences of the government using religion as a political tool to gain power and using it to control the people,” he said.

“I would hope that the people at least respect us as human beings,” he added, referring to LGBTI Bruneians.

A bisexual Bruneian man in Bandar Seri Bagawan with whom the Blade spoke earlier this month acknowledged the boycott of Bolkiah-owned hotels, but added international pressure will have more impact. The trans woman agreed.

“What is effective is looking for ways to target the sultan personally,” she said.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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