Brunei Darussalam - Lonely Planet

Brunei Darussalam - Lonely Planet

BRUNEI DARUSSALAM © Lonely Planet Publications 218 Brunei Darussalam The last remnants of an empire that once included all of Borneo and the southwe...

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© Lonely Planet Publications 218

Brunei Darussalam The last remnants of an empire that once included all of Borneo and the southwest Philippines, Brunei is now one of the smallest countries on earth – two tiny slivers of land lodged in the northern coast of Sarawak. This tiny country is blessed with some of the largest oil fields in southeast Asia, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the wealthiest rulers on earth. Thanks to these underground riches, Brunei has been able to spare most of its above-ground resources, and the country boasts some of the most intact primary rainforest in all of Borneo. Whatever else you can say about Brunei, this much is certain: it won’t be what you expect. Those expecting a mini-Dubai on the shores of the South China Sea will be surprised to find that Brunei is remarkably quiet and undeveloped. Those expecting a stern Islamic theocracy will find a relaxed country and an easy-going people. Those expecting another version of Sarawak or Sabah will find that Brunei feels qualitatively different from its nearest neighbours. For most people Brunei is merely a stopover on the overland journey between Sabah and Sarawak, or between Europe and Oceania on a Royal Brunei Airlines flight, but there is enough here to make Brunei a destination in its own right. First, there is the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) with its soaring mosques and picturesque water-villages. Then, there is the rainforest, which is best experienced in the fine Ulu Temburong National Park. Finally, there are the oddities of the country: the Jerudong Park Playground, a surreal semideserted amusement park, and the Empire Country Club and Hotel, a US$1 billion monument to misguided public spending.

HIGHLIGHTS „ Enjoy the mosques, museums and water villages of Brunei’s peaceful capital, Bandar Seri

Begawan (p221) „ Tear through the marshes between Bandar Seri Begawan and

Bangar on one of Brunei’s best boat rides (p227) „ Climb high above Brunei’s intact primary rainforest and swim in

a cool jungle river in Brunei’s best park, Ulu Temburong National Park (p234) „ Trek past the base of giant dipterocarp

trees and savour a view that extends all the way to Brunei Bay in Peradayan Forest Reserve (p233)

Bandar Seri Begawan

BSB–Bangar Boat Ride Peradayan Forest Reserve Ulu Temburong National Park

„ Marvel at the Empire Hotel (p229), a sprawling

monument to misguided spending

„ POPULATION: 379,400

Empire Hotel

„ AREA: 5765 SQ KM

HISTORY The earliest recorded references to Brunei’s presence relate to China’s trading connections with ‘Puni’ in the 6th century, during the Tang dynasty. Prior to the region’s embrace of Islam, Brunei was within the boundaries of the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire, then the Majapahit Empire of Java. By the 15th and 16th centuries, the so-called Golden Age of Sultan Bolkiah, Brunei Darussalam had become a considerable power itself in the region, with its rule extending throughout Borneo and into the Philippines. The Spanish and Portuguese were the first European visitors, arriving in the 16th century, but they failed to make inroads by force. In the early 19th century, the more subtle approach of the British, in the guise of Sarawak’s first raja, James Brooke, spelled the end of Brunei’s power. A series of ‘treaties’ was forced upon the sultan as Brooke consolidated his hold over the town of Kuching. In 1888 Brunei became a British protectorate and was gradually whittled away until, with a final dash of absurdity, Limbang was ceded to Sarawak in 1890, dividing the crippled sultanate into two parts. In 1929, just as Brunei was about to be swallowed up entirely, oil was discovered, turning the tiny state into an economic power overnight. The present sultan’s father, Sultan Omar Saifuddien, kept Brunei out of the Malayan confederacy, preferring that the country remain a British protectorate and the oil money remain on home soil. He’s credited with laying the foundations for Brunei’s solid development. In 1962, in the lead up to amalgamation with the new state of Malaysia, the British pressured to hold elections. The opposition Ra’ayat Party, which wanted to keep Brunei independent and make the sultan a constitutional monarch within a democracy, won an overwhelming victory. When the sultan refused to allow the new government into power, an armed rebellion broke out, supported by the Indonesian government. The uprising was quickly crushed with British military backing, and the ‘Abode of Peace’ has been under emergency laws ever since. Saifuddien abdicated in 1967, leaving the throne to his popular son and heir, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Early in 1984 the new ruler reluctantly led his tightly ruled country into complete independence from Britain. As a

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former public-school boy and graduate of Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the sultan rather enjoyed British patronage and the country still has close ties to Britain. After independence, Brunei veered towards Islamic fundamentalism, adopting a national ideology known as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB). This institutionalised dogma stresses Malay culture, Islam and monarchy, and is promulgated through the ministries of education, religious affairs and information. In 1991 the sale of alcohol was banned and stricter dress codes were introduced, and in 1992 the study of MIB became compulsory in schools. In recent years signs have begun to emerge that Brunei is not the model state it once was. The government has recognised a relatively small but growing unemployment problem, and disaffected youths have been blamed for isolated incidents of crime. The most disaffected youth of them all, the sultan’s younger brother Prince Jefri, became a byword for extravagance both in his private life and, rather more seriously, in his role as finance minister. Scandals and rumours of financial corruption forced the sultan to sack Jefri in 1997, but the damage had been done, and Brunei found itself with seriously depleted financial reserves. Perhaps as a result of these factors, the prevailing climate in Brunei today seems to be one of controlled reform as the sultan struggles to keep pace with the modern world. In 2004, the legislative council was finally restored after 20 years of ‘emergency’ law. So far the 29 incumbents are all royal relatives or cronies, but the constitution has been amended to allow the council to expand to 45 members in the future, with 15 of them elected by the public. In another significant step, former radical leader Muhammad Yasin Abdul Rahman, who was once jailed for his part in the 1962 rebellion, has been allowed to form a new opposition party, the National Development Party. The mere mention of the words ‘election’ and ‘opposition’ must have brought the sultan out in a sweat, as he promptly hedged his bets by adding another clause to the constitution stating that he ‘can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity’. Perhaps the sultan was worried that his marriage to a 27-year-old Malaysian journalist (technically his third wife – he’s still married to the first,