BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei’s ruling sultan on Thursday hit back at foreign criticism of the looming implementation of a form of Islamic Shariah law that includes harsh penalties, saying the new penal code was a “great achievement” for the country.
Starting in April, the tiny Southeast Asian nation will begin phasing in a version of Shariah that allows for penalties such as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. Under limited circumstances, punishments can be applied to non-Muslims in the oil-rich country, according to those who have seen the law.
Public criticism of the government is extremely rare in the country, but some citizens have turned to the Internet to express alarm at the law. Around one-third of Brunei’s 440,000 people are non-Muslims, mostly Christian or Buddhist Chinese.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah told legislators Thursday that all races should unite and support the laws, which he said were a “great achievement for the country, and not a backward or old-fashioned step.”
The plans have alarmed international human rights groups, but Bolkiah said “people outside of Brunei should respect us in the same way that we respect them.”
Brunei is a conservative country where alcohol is banned and Muslim courts already govern family affairs.
Officials have said that punishments under the new laws will not be carried out until around 2017.
Muslims in next door Malaysia are subject to a limited form of Islamic law that doesn’t include amputation or capital punishment, as does Aceh province on the western tip of Indonesia.
In general, the interpretation and practice of Islam in Southeast Asia is more liberal than in parts of the Middle East and South Asia.