History and Government

History : In ancient times, Brunei was a powerful trading nation controlling most of Borneo and part of the Philippines archipelago, with extensive connections throughout South-East Asia. The country was occupied briefly by the Spanish during the late 16th century. Part of the Spanish colonial mission was always the vigorous dissemination of Catholicism - in the previous century, Islam had been adopted in Brunei as the principal religion. In the mid-19th century, Brunei came under British influence when the seafarer, James Brooke, was granted control of the Sarawak region (now part of Malaysia) in return for protection against pirates. The island of Labuan was also ceded to Britain, thereby reducing Brunei to its current borders.

In 1888, Britain declared ‘North Borneo’ to be a British Protectorate, under which the territory was governed by a British resident, with purely nominal powers available to the Sultan. This arrangement continued - apart from a period of Japanese occupation between 1941-1945 - until Brunei’s transition to independence began in 1959. That year, a new Anglo-Brunei agreement was signed, under which the UK assumed responsibility for defence and foreign affairs but passed control of all other matters to the Sultan. Three years later, the North Borneo Liberation Army instigated rebellions, during which a state of emergency was declared. As a result, the Sultan assumed the power to rule by decree. Since then, with the benefit of its vast oil wealth, Brunei has undergone steady, if somewhat unequal, development. The country is in many respects comparable to the Gulf sheikhdoms - small, exceedingly wealthy and more or less surrounded by larger, poorer nations.

The government of the country rests in the exclusive hands of His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, 29th in the dynasty, 35 years on the throne and certainly one of the world’s richest individuals. Sultan Bolkiah (for short) took over in 1967, following the abdication of his father, Sultan Omar, who remained chief adviser to the new ruler. Political activity in his realm is kept on a very short leash. After toying with orthodox politics, the government invoked the concept of Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) as a state ideology at the end of the 1980s; Islam consequently has become a steadily stronger influence in the life of the country. Electoral politics have generally been an anathema to the Sultan. Political parties, specifically the National Democratic Party and the National Solidarity Party, were allowed to operate openly for a brief period in the 1980s and again in the mid-1990s, although were ultimately suppressed. The Sultan’s intention to maintain the leading role of the dynasty was reflected by an official announcement in August 1998, stating that his eldest son, Prince al-Muhtadee Billah, will succeed him as Sultan upon his death or retirement. However, the image of the dynasty has been somewhat damaged by revelations of the profligate and debauched lifestyle of the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri, who has since been declared bankrupt.

Abroad, Brunei pursued a more active foreign policy during the last decade, joining the Non-Aligned Movement and establishing diplomatic relations with China, Vietnam, Iran and Myanmar. A military cooperation agreement was signed with the USA, supplementing that with the UK. Brunei hosted an ASEAN summit in July 2002, which agreed co-operative measures in the field of counter-terrorism among member states. Brunei is also involved in the search for a settlement of the awkward and potentially dangerous dispute over the Spratly Islands, the South China Sea archipelago claimed by six countries, including Brunei itself and China. Relations with Malaysia have improved since the resolution of various long-running border disputes.


Government : Brunei is a traditional Islamic monarchy, with supreme political power vested in the Sultan. He is advised by the Privy Council, the Religious Council, the Council of Cabinet Ministers and the Council of Succession.

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