Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why the US Won't be Speaking Out Against Brunei's Gay Stoning Laws

by Nomad

Does the silence from the Obama Administration about Brunei's decision to enact Sharia laws against homosexuality reveal a disturbing double-standard of the US government?
Or could this just another example of the kind of CIA miscalculation that has plagued the agency for decades?

When Existence Is Illegal
On April 22 2014, some of the most extreme anti-gay laws came into effect in the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. The Southeast Asia nation has enacted  punishments mandated by Sharia law for a number of offenses, including same-sex-activity. For crimes of a sexual nature, stoning to death- as well as slicing selected parts of criminal anatomy- will be a newly adopted method of punishment under the new laws. These laws will be gradually phased in over the next few years. 

"Rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations for Muslims, insulting any verses of the Quran and Hadith, blasphemy, declaring oneself a prophet or non-Muslim, and murder are the other offences for which the death penalty could be applied under the revised code."

Although tiny country is predominantly Muslim (67%) there are also Buddhists (13%), Christian (10%) who will from now on be obliged to live under Sharia laws.  
In point of fact, the Koran has this to say about the law when it comes to homosexuality.
If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful (Sura al-Nisa' 4:16)
So, it would seem laws that require punishment are, strictly speaking, interpretations of the Sharia law and not based on what the religion actually dictates anyway. (But that's a matter for Koranic scholars to argue about.)

In any case, the United Nations Human Rights strongly condemned the new laws as a violation of human rights. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Colville  said, 
“Application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offences contravenes international law.”
Colville pointed out other problems with the new laws. 
"Stoning to death, under international law, constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited,”
Additionally, he noted that  the "criminalization and application of the death penalty for consensual relations between adults in private also violates a whole host of rights, including the rights to privacy, to equality before the law, the right to health and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention." 

What Care I?
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah did not appear to be nonplussed by the fuss. "What care I?" is a fairly common refrain from a man whose personal wealth of estimated $20 billion. 
That happens to be more than the King of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin have in the bank.
And it's not like he has anything to worry about when it comes to job security.  Bolkiah  is the  29th Sultan from a   family has ruled Brunei for over six centuries. That's a hell of a franchise.

Addressing lawmakers in his country, he said that the new laws were "a great achievement for the country, and not a backward or old-fashioned step."

Backward? Only if you consider one of the most barbaric forms of capital punishment backward
Old-fashioned? Well, only if you consider a form of punishment that dates back to the time before Moses left Egypt as old. Every country should be proud of something and, according to the diminutive Sultan, in Brunei, death by flung rock is it.
Other parts of the world would just call it a legalized hate crime.

Casting the first stone is something we've all been warned about and it is especially applicable in this case. Because when it comes to morality, there are plenty of questions to be asked about the ruling family in Brunei. 
For example, there was the Burby affair, in which it was alleged that members of the royal family had defrauded a UK businessman in a tea and coffee retail chain investment project. The courts- rather unbelievably- sided with the Jersey businessman and ordered the royal family to pay more than £50M in lost earnings to Burby. Nevertheless, there was no record that the fine was ever repaid.

On the more salacious side, there was the Marketic story, in which a former Miss USA filed a lawsuit against the ruling family of Brunei for $90 million. She alleged that she and another woman were held as "sex slaves" at the Sultan's palace and were "intimidated and coerced into performing physically and morally repulsive acts of prostitution." 
(Under Sharia law, of course, prostitution is illegal and generally harshly punished. In Saudi Arabia, Sharia law dictates that pimping, brothel ownership and prostitution are all punishable by by prison and flogging.)
These claims could never be validated. Back home, The Marketic case was thrown out by a Los Angeles judge who granted the Sultan and 44-year-old Prince Jefri sovereign immunity.

Whether this judicial decision had anything to do with the substantial investments in the US, who can say? Real estate, especially uber-luxurious hotel chains, have been a prime target for the Sultan's investment company. According to one source, The Brunei Investment Agency controls the Dorchester Collection, chain of currently 9 luxury hotels in the US and Europe, is eyeing to add at least six more hotels to bring the total number to 15 by 2015. (Which is a little bit ironic, since only citizens of Brunei are allowed to own land in that country.)

The Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard is one of the Sultan's open palaces, being managed and owned by the Dorchester Collection. A case where the Hollywood rich- even the most conscience-plagued lefties- will have the tiniest bit of gay blood on their hands. 
But just a smidgen.

Oval Office Silence
Interestingly from the Obama Administration, the world heard not a peep about Brunei's new laws. We are still waiting anyway.
When the Africa nation of Uganda implemented anti-gay laws there was "deep concern" and deep "disappointment" and talk about a review of policy. So, the Ugandan policy has received a lot of attention. However as comtemptible as it is, the Ugandan law imposes a 14-year prison sentence for homosexual acts — and life sentences for those found guilty of "aggravated homosexuality."  Compare that to a Bruneian rock in your face.

There's no question that when it comes to Brunei, the US seems to have adopted quite a different standard. But why?

The difference is of course, that Uganda needs US foreign aid. Brunei, on the other hand, just happens to be ruled by one of the world’s wealthiest men who has always played ball with the US.
Ever since, the noses of  F.F. Marriot and T.G. Cochrane, sniffed something decidedly petroleum near the Seria river in late 1926, the country has  relied on crude oil and natural gas production account for about 90% of its GDP.  It is, in fact, the fourth-largest producer of oil in Southeast Asia and the world's ninth-largest exporter of natural gas. In a world hungry for energy right now, that fact alone makes a nation pretty much immune from critcism by human rights advocates.
(Actually Uganda also has oil, but that sector is vastly under-developed when compared to Brunei.)

There are other reasons for the foreign policy hypocrisy besides Texas tea. Fantastic business opportunities- backed up by billions of petrol dollars- are just waiting to be snatched up by savvy American investors. in other words, the trough is open and a lot of  1% are gobbling it up.
As one source noted:
As Brunei diversifies its economy, US firms have an opportunity to move in the market for investment and services. Recent studies by international consultancies have suggested the feasibility of investment in tourism, financial services, and air craft maintenance services.
Added to that the country has set up a free trade zone to encourage non-energy related industries. 

Ka-Ching Diplomacy
When the US government was shut down by the Ted Cruz budget brigadiers, President Obama had to cancel his planned visits to four Southeast Asian countries, including Brunei. It was to be part of strengthening economic and trade relations in the name of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Brunei had apparently planned quite a shindig, with reported plans to provide Obama and his staff with the entire palace of the Crown Prince for the duration of his visit. (Just imagine what Fox News might have done with that.)

The Sultan has also timed the president's visit with the delivery of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, the first two of five aircraft, at a cost of $290 million. The national air carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines, aims at becoming a hub for international travel between Europe and Australia/New Zealand. 

As one cynic points out, Boeing is headquartered in Chicago- the president's hometown. When Obama and the Sultan met last year at the White House, the president lavished praise, for the Sultan's “outstanding leadership and his friendship.” He also called him a “key leader in the Southeast Asia region.” And then the president joked “We’re going to encourage him to do some shopping because we want to continue to strengthen the U.S. economy.”

Not that Dale Carnegie would have approved, but in the real world, it's the kind of treatment that makes friends and influences people.
That's called "ka-ching" diplomacy.

Another reason could be its location. And Brunei's strategic location has been recognized for a long time. As one promotional site correctly points out, Brunei is "located at the heart of South East Asia and along the East-West maritime trade route."
Furthermore, Brunei’s "easy connectivity to the growing economies within the region makes it an ideal location for export-oriented activities." 

Except for the minor problem of the judicially-sanctioned murder of its gay minority, what's not to like about Brunei? 
I mean, except for that.

Pivoting Policies
And there's a military aspect. Because the US has been wary of China's growing influence in the region, the Obama administration has proposed expanding its military presence in Southeast Asia. It's called a "policy pivot." 

Part of this plan involves support already existing US plans with Australia, Singapore and the Philippines, but also upgrading "military relations with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and..even stone-throwing Brunei. Clearly a superpower must have its priorities and, despite the rhetoric, the US has put nearly everything above human rights. 
Critics would say it is an extremely myopic policy. After all, if you take away the factor of human rights, in the post-Bush era, what is really the difference between the US and China?

As we shall see, this notion of putting human rights to the back burner has been a consistent foreign policy miscalculation since the Cold War began and the results in places like Egypt, El Salvador, Iraq have been disastrous. 

If the President has resisted the every liberal's natural tendency toward outrage when it comes to human rights violators, it is perhaps not completely his fault. After all, Obama didn't actually invent American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. He inherited it. 
And relations with Brunei have been hypocritical for a long time. Well before Obama became president. Indeed, Brunei has had a "special relationship" with the US since the tiny weeny nation-state began independent from the UK in 1984.

Brunei: A Friend in Need
Scratch the surface and all of the ugly history comes up. As one source reminds us:
Brunei has always had an interest in garnering the affection of American presidents. It was more than willing to step up and help provide $10 million to President Ronald Reagan’s main money bagmen, Oliver North and Elliott Abrams, for the Nicaraguan Contras. Unfortunately, North provided the Bruneians with the wrong bank account number for a CIA front company called Lake Resources in Geneva and the money ended up in the wrong Swiss bank account.
The fascinating story of what happened to that money is explained here
Mistakes will happen. And in the feverish attempt to thwart the Soviet Union, it's easy to transpose a couple of bank account numbers. Especially when oversight is nonexistent. 
Never you worry about lost millions here or there. The Sultan is rolling in it. Brunei, said Reagan officials at the time, was solicited by the State Department because the Sultan was known to be staunchly anti-Communist. And because he had more money than he knew what to do with. Fear now, Reagan's crew knew exactly what to do with the Sultan's cash. 
At the time, Congress had shut off the taps when it came to funding for right wing rebel groups who were supposed to be stopping Communism's spread in Central America. 

Today both the post-Soviet Russia under Putin and the American-allied country of Brunei have adopted anti-gay legislation, without too much hand-wringing about human rights. 
As far as the US, the world can see that truth. Namely that we support human rights but only if there are no other considerations or obstructions.

The Unfunny Punchline
Here's the kicker, the part that changes the whole thing from reputable but flawed policy and into political farce on a historic scale.

In 1983, in the wake of the Iranian revolution, CIA officials feared that after Brunei's independence, Muslim students studying in Britain would return to Brunei with the intent of challenging the Sultan and demanding an Islamic state.
The 1983 CIA report stated that Brunei, upon independence, was already so pro-Western the country that it was undecided on whether to join the Islamic Conference because it did not want to get involved in Arab politics or the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Fears of another Iran scenario dominated minds in the CIA back then. But in Brunei, we had a friend, a leader who seemed to believe in the same ideas about policy, about human rights, about moderate modern Islam. If democracy was hardly compatible with monarchy, it wasn't exactly incompatible either.
Yet gradually things began to look less clear. As one 1995 State Department report observes,  
While no law restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the Government frequently censored international newspapers and periodicals by removing or blacking out articles or photographs found to be objectionable, particularly those potentially embarrassing to Brunei's royal family, critical of the Government or the Sultan, or those judged sexually or morally improper by censors.
Overall, however, the officials assured one another, this Sultan was a guy the US didn't have to worry about.
Like Saddam or Mubarak or half a dozen others. 

And in 1996, US intelligence officials were still celebrating ties with Brunei as a Wikileaks memo shows:
Brunei has proven increasingly over the past few years that it is a friend of The United States, grateful for our forward deployed pacific presence, and cooperative in our efforts on several international issues, including Kedo, Bosnia, and the Middle east Peace process. For very little additional investment in time and funds, the united states could enhance its bilateral relationship with Brunei and, I am confident, generate even more cooperation from this oil-rich sultanate.
According to that very interesting document, the US was offering something to the tiny well-heeled state something that no other nation- post-Soviet, - could reasonably do. Protection from Chinese expansion. Even to the extent of muscling out the influence of the UK in the Pacific - yet another country with whom US has a special relationship.
Quite ambitious, when you consider that Brunei's ties with the UK go way back. The two nations have been link since Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888.  
But the British empire left a lousy taste in the mouth of the average citizen of Brunei. The American Empire was a different flavor. Or maybe not.
It was not, policy makers told themselves, just an exploiter but a savior.
The classified State Department memo by the Consul at the embassy there states:
Great Britain does not have the Seventh fleet, and is not viewed as the stabilizer of the Asia-Pacific region, or as the benign provider of security in the uncertain days ahead as China develops as a superpower and flexes its muscles in the region. Increasingly I sense that for Brunei, the United States is regarded as the ultimate guarantor of its security--not that Brunei necessarily expects The US to come to the rescue if invaded, but in the sense that the US. presence, particularly in the form of the seventh fleet, will keep potentially aggressive regional powers at bay.
Brunei needed the mighty US and could therefore be counted on to join the ranks of civilized pro-Western countries.  

Where Hypocrisies Lead
And yet, forty years of US diplomacy in Brunei have led to exactly the kind of extremist Islamic state that would have turned Reagan officials white as ghosts. The slow transition was noted and ignored in the Bush administration.
Another Wikileaks memo from 2006 describes the sweaty-forehead panic of CIA officials when the Sultan proposed a trip to Iran. It also noted the Sultan's support to Iran's nuclear ambitions and proposed sending a strong message against any improved ties which would be seen in the US as "tacit support" for Iran.

All of the warnings were there and they were ignored and today the Obama administration finds itself in the ridiculous position of condemning the human rights policies of one African nation for having anti-gay policies which are, in fact, relatively mild when compared to Brunei, supposedly an important ally of the United States.

With the passage of Sharia law in Brunei, it has joined the ranks of countries like Iran, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan who punish homosexuality with death. 

But that list also includes nations like United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which, like Brunei, are steadfast pals of the US.

And if those friends of the US sneered and laughed behind our backs when the then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said that "gay rights are human rights" who can blame them?
Apparently we only meant it conditionally.