The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brunei once held off on strict Islamic law to stay in a U.S.-backed trade pact. Then Trump pulled out.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, one of the landmarks of Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. (Vincent Thian/AP)

HONG KONG — When more than 100 members of Congress raised worries in 2014 over plans to include Brunei in a sweeping Pacific trade deal, envoys from the tiny sultanate rushed to Washington with a message: We may be thinking about stricter Islamic laws, but we won’t really enforce them.

The damage-control mission by Brunei — an oil- and gas-rich patch of coast and rain forest on the island of Borneo — came after its sultan began the first phase of strict sharia-inspired laws, U.S. officials said. At the time, the Obama administration was deep in negotiations over the Trans- Pacific Partnership, or TPP, with Brunei and others in the historic deal.

The laws, when fully implemented, would punish gay sex and adultery with death by stoning, and stealing would be punished with amputation. 

But American officials said that would be an obstacle to Brunei’s remaining part of the TPP. 

“We made it very clear to the Bruneians that there was a real risk that if we put forward [the TPP] to Congress, they would ratify it but not allow it to enter into force with Brunei,” said a former American negotiator, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. “That was a real possibility, and they were debating it internally.” 

Then in early 2017, President Trump exited the trade agreement in one of his first acts after his inauguration.

And Brunei quietly moved ahead with the laws it once said would never be carried out. The final phase came into effect April 3, sending a ripple through LGBT and minority communities in the country. 

Some activists and others are now lamenting the loss of U.S. leverage through the trade agreement. The U.S. withdrawal from the TPP was also seen as a setback for human rights and pro-democracy movements elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam. 

Watch: An activist in Vietnam feeling pressure after U.S. left TPP

The action in Brunei serves as the most recent example of the fallout from some of Trump’s earliest decisions in corners of the world far from Washington. Some diplomats and experts argue that leaving the TPP has hampered the United States’ ability to rein in countries such as Brunei on potential human rights violations. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has been criticized as being softer on these issues than previous administrations were. 

“The TPP withdrawal was an important milestone for the relationship,” said Craig Allen, who was the U.S. ambassador to Brunei from 2014 to 2018. “We did say [during negotiations] the U.S. could not enter TPP with a country with egregious human rights violations.” 

In a statement April 2, a State Department spokesman said Brunei’s decision to implement the next stages of the sharia-influenced penal code is “counter to its international human rights obligations, including with respect to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Later, a State Department spokesman said the United States “regularly communicate[s] with the government of Brunei regarding human rights and encourage[s] it to uphold its international commitments on human rights.”

Representatives of the Brunei government did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts studying the sultanate say the move to implement the new elements of Islamic law has been in the works for decades and could have happened even with U.S. pressure.

Brunei continues to be in a reduced version of the Pacific trade deal with countries including Australia, Canada and others in Southeast Asia, but without the United States as an anchor economy.

Brunei, which does not have elections and has no parliament or organized civil society, is ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72. In his younger days, he was known for his decadent lifestyle, love of luxury cars and fine cigars. As the sultan has aged, he has gravitated toward religion and piety, even leading Friday prayers — a role usually reserved for religious leaders in many Islamic states. 

“It hasn’t come out of nowhere. Brunei has gradually developed in this direction,” said Dominik Müller, a social anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany, and a visiting fellow at Harvard University who studies Islam’s impact in Southeast Asia. He pointed to a 2011 speech in which the sultan said implementing sharia was a “divine obligation” that he may be “asked about on judgment day.” 

“Age may be playing a role, but I think it really was inevitable,” Müller added. “They have committed so much to it that it is inevitable to now have it on paper.” 

Bruneians and those familiar with the country note that even after the first phase of sharia-style law was implemented in 2014, very few cases were prosecuted under the Islamic penal code. Those tracking the cases said that brutal punishments, such as caning, were applied in reference to old British colonial laws that remain on the books alongside the Islamic laws, similar to punishments in Singapore and Malaysia.

Experts note that Brunei is markedly different from Saudi Arabia or Iran, with many people leading a relatively prosperous existence, generally undisturbed by the state. 

Is India the next target in Trump’s trade wars?

During negotiations over the TPP, Bruneian officials told U.S. counterparts to look at Brunei’s track record and trust that the sultanate would not seek wholesale prosecutions under the new laws, people familiar with the discussions said. The assurance did not ease concerns. 

“They argued that the prosecutions would never happen, but it was not a comforting excuse,” the former American TPP negotiator said. “It wasn’t something the U.S. government was planning to accept.”

Even without the new laws, the nonsecular country has never been a comfortable place for LGBT people.

A 19-year-old gay man in Brunei, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his personal safety, remembers dogmatic religious classes when he was growing up that were a constant reminder that he would not be accepted by society.

“They always taught us how being gay was a bad thing, and I started to challenge that and think, ‘What is wrong with who I am,’ ” he said. “But I could not talk to anyone.” 

The punishments — such as death by stoning — have drawn outrage in the West. Celebrities including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John have called for a boycott of properties owned by the sultan of Brunei, which include the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air. The luxury properties are owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the sultanate. 

“Every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery,” Clooney wrote for the website Deadline.

The sharia courts’ criminal procedure code, published in 2018, includes jarring descriptions of how stoning by death will be carried out and graphics on how hands and feet should be amputated for theft. 

“The hope is that now, under the new phase, [the punishments] are not really enforced,” Müller said. “But nobody knows. It can take on a life of its own, and that’s where the pressure comes in.” 

The 19-year-old gay man says he has often contemplated leaving Brunei, as many other LGBT individuals have done.

“Every day, I do think about it. If Brunei starts this sharia Islamic police force, and they hunt down LGBT people, then what would happen to me?” he said. “I’ve also gone against sharia law but speaking out against it to the media, and I’m a Muslim but I don’t act like it. 

“I realize that this can endanger my life.”

Agriculture secretary once urged Trump to rejoin TPP

Trump’s complicated relationship with the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Opinion: A year later, Trump’s rejection of TPP is still a disaster

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news