Located on a small portion of the island of Borneo is the Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace (as it’s officially known). A land of resplendent architecture and wild jungles, it draws you in like few places can.
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- Capital (and Largest City): Bandar Seri Begawan
- Population (2015): 417,200 (169th)
- Total Area: 5,765 km² (172nd)
- Official Language: Malay
- Recognized Language: English
- Currency: Brunei dollar (B$) (BND)
History of Brunei
Much of ancient and medieval Bruneian history is hazy, though we know there was ample trade and wealth spread across the island of Borneo for a time. Reports of a weakened civilization came out Japan during the latter half of the Middle Ages, however the sultanate of Brunei was reputed to reach its zenith by around the 16th century CE.
In 1578, the Spanish declared war on Brunei because they viewed it as integral to the spread of Islam in the Philippines (where they also had a vested interest). The attack decimated Brunei, and though the Spanish left after a few months, the sultanate was greatly weakened. A civil war that gripped the country during the late 17th century also did the land no favors.
Flashing forward to the mid 19th century, and this time we see the British attacking Brunei to resolve a dispute between sultans. Over time, the British were granted more and more land in the nation.
In an effort to stop a certain individual (James Brooke) from gaining more territory, Brunei signed an agreement with the Crown that essentially turned it into a British protectorate. The local ‘resident’ of the British crown eventually grew to have more control of the country’s affairs than the Sultan himself.
20th Century and War
The two main events in the history of Brunei in the early 20th century were the discovery of oil in 1929 and invasion by the Japanese in 1941 which saw Brunei occupied in less than a week (with the British lacking the resources to defend it due to the war in Europe). Though the Sultan was allowed to remain in charge, the Japanese effectively governed the nation (which they invaded in the first place for oil). After suffering extensive Allied bombing, the Australians and Americans landed and forced a Japanese surrender. Following the end of the war, the British overtook direct administration for a year.
Independence and Modern Brunei
The road to independence in the latter half of the 20th century took a while, but can be traced back to two main steps. First, there was the writing of the constitution in 1959, which transferred domestic power back to the Sultan and the government (though Britain remained in charge of foreign affairs). Finally, after much debate and negotiation, the UK officially granted Brunei its independence on January 1, 1984.
Today, the Sultan holds widespread powers, while elections have not been held for decades. Recent criticism was directed at the country for imposing sharia law on the Muslim majority of Brunei. This all aside however, Brunei is a safe and stable country that seeks to make the most of its relatively newfound independence.
The majority of the Bruneian population is ethnically Malay and adheres to the Islamic faith. As such, much of the culture of Brunei is similar to Malaysian culture…an influence that can be seen strongly in the cuisine and language. Looking back through both ancient history and modern times, Hindu and Western elements have found their way into society as well.
Flag of Brunei
The flag of Brunei features a yellow background with a diagonal black and white stripe running across the centre. In the middle of the flag is the crest of Brunei. The yellow represents the sultan and royalty. The black and white denotes the chief ministers of the country. The crescent on the crest stands for Islam, the parasol for monarchy, and the hands for the benevolent government.
Sports in Brunei
Soccer is the most popular sport in Brunei, unfortunately the country has not had much international sporting success. Although it does not send many athletes to the Olympics, Brunei participates in them as well as the Commonwealth Games.
Geography of Brunei
Brunei is divided into two nearby, unconnected sections on the island of Borneo, with 97% of the population located in the larger, western region. The landscape is mostly characterized by tropical lowland rainforest, with occasional mountainous regions within the forests of Brunei as well. While there are few large cities, there are important settlements including the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, as well as the oil town of Seria.
Facts about Brunei
- Pointing with an index finger is impolite, so it’s done with the thumb
- Hassanal Bolkiah (the Sultan of Brunei) is one of the world’s wealthiest people with a net worth of approximately US$20 billion in 2008
- He also owns hundreds (or thousands?) of luxury cars
- Shell gets a lot of their oil from offshore rigs in Brunei
- Qur’an reading competitions are held here
- It’s illegal to drink alcohol in public, though visitors can bring some booze into the country for private consumption
A small, elegant sultanate half a world away, Brunei makes a name for itself with a unique history and proud culture.
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