ForcesWatch comment

The British military: protecting the Sultan of Brunei
05/04/2019

ForcesWatch comment

With the stationing of British troops in Brunei, the UK government has a powerful hand to play in challenging the new anti-LGBTQ+ law imposed by the Sultan.

This week, despite international outrage, the authoritarian Sultan of Brunei made it law for LGBTQ+ people to be flogged or stoned to death for having sex. Queer sex has long been outlawed in Brunei as in other countries; this new law further imperils and oppresses an already suffering minority.

Whether or not executions will be carried out remains to be seen - the last execution in Brunei took place in 1957, when the country was still a protectorate of the UK. Of course, people will certainly be driven further underground and kept repressed by the law, which will have severe psychological and personal implications for generations to come.

Celebrities and human rights organisations are calling for people to boycott Brunei-owned hotels and businesses; but the UK Government has a far more powerful hand to play. 

While working to improve its treatment of minorities and present itself as an inclusive and progressive employer, the British military is protecting the Sultan as part of its project of projecting global power.

The Sultan of Brunei is a billionaire ally to the UK. He was himself trained at the British Army’s officer training facility at Sandhurst, and is currently kept in charge of his oil-rich south-east Asian nation with the help of 2000 UK troops.

Every five years since 1984, when the small state became both independent and a member of the Commonwealth, agreement has been signed between the UK and Brunei to keep UK military personnel garrisoned in the country.

A patrol of the 1st Battalion, Queen's Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) searches for rebels in the jungle of Brunei, during the Indonesian Confrontation, 1962. © IWM (R 18543)

This is reassuring for the Bruneian monarchy, given the strength of the British troops and the long-standing, dedicated nature of British military support. The British military put down a rebellion against a previous sultan in 1962. It is hard to say whether or not they would do the same again, but certainly the Sultan himself pays for the troops to be there to support him should the need arise.

Undoubtedly, were the British government to threaten to withdraw their military support for Brunei until the brutal new laws are repealed, this could be a powerful bargaining chip for preventing the oppression and potential execution of LGBTQ+ people.

This likely means that challenges to his rule are less likely to bubble up; as well as safeguarding the Sultan against neighbouring countries with larger forces, and giving valuable training to the Bruneian troops. British military support in Brunei clearly has an absolute premium from the perspective of the Bruneian monarchy.

From the British perspective, Brunei is being heralded as a key part of the ‘Global Britain’ vision, within which increased military operations in Asia are a major strand. Britain is considering building another military base there, and uses the country for training in jungle warfare. The fact that Brunei is the third-largest oil producer in Southeast Asia may also have something to do with British interest in the country.

Undoubtedly, were the British government to threaten to withdraw their military support for Brunei until the brutal new laws are repealed, this could be a powerful bargaining chip for preventing the oppression and potential execution of LGBTQ+ people.

The ‘Global Britain’ strategy is touted as projecting influence that supports global human rights. How can this be true when the UK government is being paid by the Sultan of Brunei to give him military support while he legalises executing LGBTQ+ people and amputating children’s limbs for stealing?

Boycotting hotels is frankly not going to have a great impact on the multi-billionaire Sultan. But removing the protection of the British Army actually might.

As it stands, instead of questioning how the military's protection of the Sultan facilitates his abuses of power, Gavin Williamson has asserted that the UK is intervening 'at the highest levels' only to be assured that its own personnel will not be affected.

The Times reported Williamson as saying, “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has immediately started discussions with the government of Brunei to discuss this because we want to ensure that they do not affect our service personnel in any way whatsoever.'

Meanwhile the lives of LGBTQ Bruneians are disregarded and there has been no suggestion that our military support of the Sultan is being questioned.

We need to insist that the British government takes meaningful action for human rights in Brunei. It should deliver an ultimatum to the Sultan - no more military support until these laws are repealed. 

Now is exactly the time to do this - on Wednesday 10 April 4.30 - 5.30pm, there will be a debate in Parliament on LGBTQ+ rights in Brunei, moved by Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West.

Please be in touch with your MP to ask them to attend the debate, and to contend that the British military's protection of the brutal Bruneian Sultan should stop.

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