Brunei has shocked the world by implementing a penal code that allows gay men to be stoned to death. It sparked rapid condemnation and calls for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by the state, but the motives for the new laws run deep and the response will need sharper teeth.

I was born in Brunei and spent the first 16 years of my life there. For as long as I can remember everything seemed to be running smoothly on the surface. The oil-rich sultanate of 400,000 people on the northern tip of Borneo is one of the largest producers of oil in Asia. That meant Bruneians and immigrants, like my family, did not have to pay income tax, and benefited from subsidised education and healthcare.

We saw glimpses of the royal family’s extravagance through gold-plated mosque domes and lamp posts, in the opening of the largest theme park in southeast Asia – with free entry to the public – and in royal celebrations marked with concerts by the likes of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

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The only catch? We were not to criticise the monarchy or discuss religion, and had to respect local cultural norms.

Brunei has been an absolute monarchy since 1962 when a left-leaning political party, Parti Rakyat Brunei, won local elections. The results of the election were not recognised by the Sultan, and the party attempted to stage a coup, which was suppressed by British forces based in Singapore. Brunei has been under emergency rule ever since, which grants sultan Hassanal Bolkiah full executive decision-making power.

But the question remains, why has the sultan implemented the penal code now, in the face of international outrage? It’s not as if he didn’t know it was coming – the last time Brunei made these kinds of international headlines was back in 2014, when plans to implement the laws were first revealed.

It is, on one level, simply another step in the state’s history of repression and disregard for human rights, but it also boils down to money, and power.

Oil and gas are responsible for more than 50 per cent of Brunei’s GDP, and the Bruneian economy has been contracting in light of a general decline in oil prices. The government has failed to diversify, and is therefore unlikely to be able to continue providing wide-ranging subsidies to keep the local population content over the long term.

These new laws need to be seen in that context. Back in 1984, Brunei adopted the official ideology of “Melayu Islam Beraja”, which equates sovereignty with the sultanate, Islam and Malay identity. Now it appears that the sultan is trying to consolidate power with the support of conservative sections of the Malay-Muslim majority population.

If the sultan sees this as a political imperative, you wonder how effective the international condemnation will be. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, called the laws “draconian”. Actor George Clooney called for the boycott of luxury hotels owned by Brunei’s investment agency, which itself is owned by the sultan.

So what should be the international response? First, it is important to keep the broader human rights context in Brunei in mind.

Significant media attention has focused on the impact the sharia penal code will have on LGBT+ people. However, the penal code also disproportionately affects women and religious minorities. Abortion is punishable by flogging, and people are criminalised if they expose Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. Focusing any campaign on LGBT+ people alone will harden attitudes towards LGBT+ Bruneians while diluting the broader point.

With that in mind, even the boycott of luxury hotels may also be harmful. It could easily be seen as an attack by prominent LGBT+ people and organisations against the Bruneian state. And it is unlikely to be effective. Hotel revenue is dwarfed by oil and gas, and a similar boycott from 2014 fizzled out.

So what might the sultan care about? He cares about the UK.

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As a former British colony, the sultanate continues to be supported by the UK. Ever since suppressing the 1962 coup, there has been a contingent of gurkhas based in Brunei – even after Brunei gained independence in 1984. The sultan pays for the troops’ expenses in a defence agreement which is renewed every five years. It is the only significant British military base in southeast Asia, which lends it great strategic importance.

This is where activism against the new penal code should be directed. The sultanate is heading down a road where opposition to the monarchy may intensify, amid economic challenges and this drift towards a brutal version of Islamic law. Questions now need to be raised about the role of the 2,000 British soldiers stationed in Brunei to support a monarchy responsible for political repression and human rights abuses.

The next agreement between Britain and Brunei is due to expire in February next year. In this new era for the sultanate, it looks like an opportunity for Britain to show its true colours as a standard bearer for human rights around the globe.

Suraj Girijashanker lived Brunei from 1988-2005 and now is specialist in international refugee law

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