(Reuters) – The sultanate of Brunei this week becomes the first East Asian country to introduce Islamic criminal law, the latest example of a deepening religious conservatism that has also taken root in parts of neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
Brunei, a tiny former British protectorate of about 400,000 nestled between two Malaysian states on Borneo island, relies on oil and gas exports for its prosperity, with annual per capita income of nearly $50,000. It is the first country in east Asia to adopt the criminal component of sharia at a national level.
Run by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, 67, Brunei has no national elections, but any discontent has been assuaged by high, tax-free incomes and benefits like free education and health care.
The sultan, said by diplomats to have become more religious, announced the introduction of sharia as a “great achievement.”
From Wednesday, residents of the country dominated by Malay Muslims face conviction by Islamic courts and fines or jail terms for offences like pregnancy outside marriage, failure to perform Friday prayers, and propagating other religions.
A second phase comes into effect 12 months later covering offences for theft and alcohol consumption by Muslims, punishable by whipping and amputations.
The death penalty, including by stoning, will be introduced in the final phase a year later for offences including adultery, sodomy and insulting the Koran or the ‘prophet’ Muhammad.
Most of the laws will also apply to non-Muslims.
That raises concern among Western workers in the oil sector and tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese Bruneians and 30,000 mostly Roman Catholic Filipino migrant workers. About 20% of residents are non-Muslim, including substantial Buddhist and Christian communities.
Leaders of Malaysia’s Islamist PAS party, part of the opposition, say the move has accelerated their bid to install sharia punishments in Kelantan state, which they control… In Indonesia, some districts have sharia-inspired bylaws but Aceh is the only province allowed to implement it as law. The province has its own sharia police force and courts that enforce strict laws against gambling, promiscuity and alcohol.