US Criticism Of Brunei 'Too Harsh'

State Department's International Religious Freedom Report

Bandar Seri Begawan - The latest United States report on religious freedom in Brunei has raised some eyebrows here.

On October 26, 2009, the US Department of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor published its newest International Religious Freedom Report 2009.

The report, which contains some 2,500 words, states, "The (Brunei) Government was responsible for deterioration of religious freedom during the reporting period by further restricting religious freedoms for non-Muslims."

Some in society including from the minority religious groups said it is too harsh to describe the unique tolerance that is being observed in Brunei. They also feel that the statement is inaccurate and misleading and can also be counterproductive.

The US Embassy in Brunei defended the report and said that the United States and the US Embassy greatly respect Brunei and a measure of that respect is their willingness to discuss the areas of concern.

The Bulletin had approached the US Embassy for some insight into the report.

The embassy appreciated the opportunity to respond regarding the US State Department's International Religious Freedom (IRE) report.

While the report stands on its own, the US Ambassador said the US Embassy should respect the role the press plays in open discussions. "We believe that quiet diplomacy along with open discussion improve and enhance cordial relations between nations, such as Brunei and the United States of America."

He said, President Obama noted in his widely praised speech in Cairo, Egypt that "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we can protect it".

The recently released US State Department's International Religious Freedom (IRF) report, which highlights religious freedom issues throughout the world, should not be viewed as an attempt to impose "US values".

As Secretary Clinton noted, Ambassador Todd said, the value of religious freedom is internationally recognised and found in the constitutions and laws of many nations, including Brunei.

The Constitution of Brunei, in part, states that "The official religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Islamic Religion: Provided that all other religions may be practised in peace and harmony by the persons professing them".

"Unfortunately, there was deterioration in religious freedom and this is a noticeable change from Brunei's long and rich tradition of religious tolerance. The most notable example of this involves private Christian School officials who were sent a letter and threatened with fines and imprisonment for offering to teach Christian subject matter to Christian students during school hours," said the ambassador.

The US Embassy, Ambassador Todd, and senior US officials were assured that this was not the policy of the Government of Brunei and that it would be corrected. To date, nothing has changed and the school remains under the same prohibitions, said the statement from the ambassador.

"The International Religious Freedom report does not represent an 'agenda' on the part of the US. All nations that are part of the international community undergo evaluations and reporting from the UN, regional organisations, bilateral partners, and NGOs. The IRF is a means to promote discussion between nations. Brunei has a positive future and is winning praise regionally and globally for new initiatives such as the Heart of Borneo, why risk tarnishing this forward progress and Brunei's reputation? It is perplexing given Brunei's rich traditions of tolerance and pride in the founding Malay Islamic principles. These principles are not in opposition nor should they be threatened by religious freedom.

"The United States and the US Embassy greatly respect Brunei and a measure of that respect is our willingness to discuss areas of concern. Brunei is a nation we share our concerns and our praise with. We are friends, and as friends sometimes we may not agree, but at a minimum as friends we owe it to each other to be candid about issues that concern us. We remain confident that issues raised in the International Religious Freedom Report can be addressed in a fair and equitable manner," added the statement from the ambassador of the US Embassy in Brunei.

Prominent leaders in Brunei expressed much different views.

Pehin Kapitan Lela Diraja Dato Paduka Goh King Chin, a member of the Legislative Council, said the report is a miscalculation because Brunei Government does respect the culture and the right of worship of other minority groups.

"What deterioration?" he asked. "Chinese New Year and Christmas celebrations have been held over the years. The government even allows Chinese to carry out hungry ghost festival and burn incense outside their houses and business premises." According to him there is no problem unless "you create one".

The late Sultan's father, Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifudien III, donated large amount of cash for the construction of the Chinese temple in the city centre. That kind of respect, said Pehin Goh, stands until today. Islam is a religion based on tolerance, and the government and the people, according to him, have been showing that.

Pehin Goh recalled a time when he wanted to import religious material into the country, it was stopped at the entry point and he had to write a letter to the relevant authority. He finally was allowed to bring it in. He said we all must follow the rules and regulations.

Prominent businessmen and a respected Chinese elder, Pehin Kapitan Cina Kornia Di-Raja Dato Paduka Lau Ah Kok urged other minority groups to show respect that Brunei is and forever an Islamic country, and they must all be proud of that tradition.

He said Bruneians of all races and religions live in peace and harmony. Although it is a Malay state, and has been for thousands of years, other minority groups enjoy peace and tranquility that no other place on earth can match. Minority groups are treated the same and given the same perks.

"As a minority group," he said, "if we want to be equally respected, we must first respect Islam and the Malays, and the Country that carries Malay Islamic Monarchy as its tenet, and with mutual respect we all shall prosper together in relative harmony."

He assured that if we want to do something, such as building a temple or religious school, we must ask permission and carry it according to the law of the land, and this applies to not only the minority groups but the majority Malays as well.

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, however, declined to comment.

Source: Azaraimy HH, US Criticism of Brunei 'Too Harsh', 17 November 2009