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Everything has its price

Not a lot of people visit Brunei, which is sad because it is a haven of tranquility, full of vibrant teashops, exciting golf courses and opulent mosques.

Even for those with decadent tastes, it is a simple matter to suss out the location of a late night speakeasy where booze, pool and other diversions are available.

What may vex you, however, is something the government in Bandar Seri Begawan, the tiny riverine capital, should address urgently – namely the lack of free and open discourse.

When it comes to politics, the monarchy, human rights, religion, race and the price of condoms, lips must be zipped or else the speaker may be on the next flight out, if not worse.

Consider the case of Dr Maung Zarni, a well known pro-democracy advocate from Myanmar, who taught at the University of Brunei Darussalam.

Earlier this month, he quit his post after the authorities, in a flagrant breach of academic norms, ordered him to stop espousing freedom and democracy in his home country.

Remember that Brunei is this year’s chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and that it supports ASEAN’s Hanoi Declaration to promote “open societies”, as does fellow member Myanmar.

But it hasn’t proved very open for Maung Zarni after he attended a human rights conference in England, where one of his fellow panellists was Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

His varsity bosses demurred, fearing it signalled that Bruneian academics were extolling free and fair elections with a vibrant opposition and an uncensored media – all of which are verboten in the sleepy sultanate.

So his funds and support for the UK visit were blocked and he was warned not to use the university’s name during discussions.

In effect, it was a standard Bruneian “zip your lips” command, which the professor rightly found distasteful, and impossible, to obey.

As a result, upon his return he was ordered to restrict his work to non-Myanmar issues and told that “everyone is watching” to ensure he did just that.

But, said Maung Zarni: “I simply could not countenance allowing my employer to intimidate me into professional silence on unfolding human rights atrocities.” So he resigned.

His laudable action reminded me of an occasion when, reporting for Asiaweek, I wrote that Brunei “likes to keep its society even more tightly closed than Myanmar or Laos”.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded: “Bruneians receive uncensored news from abroad via satellite television, radio and newspapers, they travel abroad freely and many seek further education in other countries.”

Fine, but that begged the question: If you admit that, why don’t you allow Bruneians to receive uncensored news from home via their own media? Actually, as I later discovered, Bruneians willing to put their ethics on hold can get uncensored news from local sources by simply paying for it.

The revelation came when one of my fixers arranged for me to meet a “deep throat” government source, who would supply sensitive, scoopy items to me.

He was a slim young man, and after apologising for his lateness, showd me a slip of paper.

It was a printout of the immigration details of all the times I had entered Brunei – and it was just a sweetener, he said, to indicate his access to highly restricted material.

He then showed me a list of goods, including French impressionist paintings worth tens of millions of dollars, that had been illegally acquired by the Sultan’s wayward brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah.

That headline grabber and many more shock horror stories could come my way – for a price. He did not ask for much, but still I refused, telling him that this was Bandar not London and that it was unethical to buy information here.

So he slipped away. But that is how it is in Brunei: despite heavy censorship, everything can be bought, including forbidden fruit.

Contact our regional insider Roger at roger.mitton@gmail.com

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