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The Pentagon, China, Brunei, LGBTI & Islamic Shariah Law

The Pentagon, China, Brunei, LGBTI & Islamic Shariah Law

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Pentagon has conducted its first army-to-army exercise in Brunei along the strategic, contested South China Sea after the U.S. State Department suggested obedience to the sultanate's Islamic Shariah laws which punish offenders, including homosexuals and Christians.

The main job of Brunei's small army is to protect the country's petroleum and natural gas fields.

The August 6-16 Pahlawan Warrior exercise included 33 U.S. Army and Indiana Army National Guard soldiers under the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) partnered with Royal Brunei Land Forces on jungle warfare operations, urban terrain tactics and other practice.

They "spent four nights located deep within the nation's southwest rainforest" in operations observed by Hawaii-based members of the 25th Infantry Division Lighting Academy, according to the U.S. Army Pacific Public Affairs Office.

"Bruneian Soldiers taught classes on jungle survival, movement to contact, land navigation and ambush techniques. The training culminated in a bilateral attack," the Army said.

They also "practiced a multi-pronged attack on an enemy who occupied a three-story building," plus sniper assaults, troops rappelling onto a roof from a Blackhawk helicopter and Scorpion tanks firing to protect moving personnel carriers.

"Pahlawan Warrior is a truly historical event as it marks a first bilateral exercise between our two great armies,” said National Guard deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Timothy McKeithen.

In 1994, "Brunei and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on military and defense cooperation," the U.S. Embassy in Brunei said.

"This agreement resulted in joint exercises, training programs, and other forms of military cooperation between the two nations, which is still in effect today."

In 2014, "the first member of the U.S. armed forces graduated from the Brunei Command and Staff College, and the United States has enrolled a student each year since," the embassy said.

Pahlawan Warrior "signifies the spirit of camaraderie of both exercising troops in being brave to break the ice amongst themselves, especially in the sharing of knowledge and experience to the application of techniques, tactics and procedures at the tactical level," Royal Brunei Land Forces' Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Kairul Hamed said.

The U.S. training boosts Brunei's self-appointed prime minister, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who rules with near-absolute power over the former British protectorate which has a 78 percent Muslim population.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps trained with Brunei's armed forces in November 2017 as part of the Pentagon's annual Cooperational Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) maritime exercise.

Their CARAT training on sea, land and air began in 1995, and the latest round included "port security, aviation and surface warfare, diving and salvage, military medicine, law, public affairs, along with a comprehensive at sea exercise," the U.S. Navy said in a statement.

Tiny Brunei is wedged into Borneo island's north coast along the South China Sea, across the water from southern Vietnam.

Brunei claims territorial rights on a few small, nearby islands contested by China, similar to claims by other Southeast Asian countries over islands near their shores.

But Brunei is the smallest and weakest claimant to any islands, with little ability to enforce its claims.

Washington opposes Beijing's exclusive domination over islands in the South China Sea including the Paracels and the Spratly archipelago.

President Donald Trump's administration is wooing Southeast Asian claimants -- with mixed success -- to support the U.S. position.

Brunei's increasingly important commercial relations with China however have resulted in its claims being kept very low-key, compared to much more volatile disputes against China by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

While Brunei has enjoyed lavish wealth from its oil and natural gas reserves, it has recently become vulnerable to petroleum price drops and anxious to diversify its economy.

"Brunei remains entirely hostage to hydrocarbons," the Japan-based financial magazine Nikkei Asian Review reported.

"The economy has been ravaged by the plunge in energy prices, undermining the cradle-to-grave social system funded through Brunei's 50 percent holding in Brunei Shell Petroleum," it said.

After recently encouraging more foreign investment, China has become Brunei's biggest partner, estimated at more than $4 billion including in an oil refinery and petrochemical complex near Brunei's capital Bandar Seri Begawan.

An additional $12 billion Chinese-assisted expansion of that complex is forecast in coming years, along with ports and aquaculture projects.

During the military exercise, U.S. forces needed to obey Brunei's Shariah laws while in public.

"When in public, travelers should consider removing religious jewelry and concealing religious tattoos," said the U.S. State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), co-chaired by the Diplomatic Security Service.

"Brunei has outlawed public celebrations of Christmas, purportedly under the belief that symbols including the crucifix, candles, Christmas trees, the exchange of Christmas greetings, and the singing of Christmas carols are all un-Islamic and may tempt Muslims to leave their faith," OSAC warned in a recent report issued for internal U.S. private sector security purposes.

"LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersexed) sex acts are criminalized in Brunei under Civil Law and also under Brunei's Shariah Penal Code, with possible punishments including fines and sentences of up to 10 years in prison," OSAC said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her San Francisco psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

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