Concern for security of oil fields has Brunei on rocky road to self-rule

One of the tiniest - and certainly the wealthiest - of Britain's far-flung dependencies is heading for independence along what is proving a bumpy diplomatic road.

The sultanate of Brunei, near the northern tip of Borneo in Southeast Asia, is due to go it alone under its own flag on the last day of 1983. But the British Foreign Office and the territory's royal ruler are locked in a dispute about how Brunei's assets of crude oil should be protected in the future.

Since 1971, Brunei - two tiny enclaves separated by the Malaysian state of Sarawak - has handled its own internal affairs. Most of its 200,000 people are Malays.

But Britain has been in charge of foreign affairs and defense. It has employed a battalion of British Gurkhas (hill tribesmen from Nepal) to guard Brunei's oil fields.

In a typical year the fields produce $3 billion in revenue. The oil assets were developed partly with British investment, and London wants to ensure that they remain secure.

The dispute between London and the Brunei capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is chiefly about the Gurkhas.

Sultan Sir Muda Hassanal Bolkiah wants to keep them and is prepared to pay for their upkeep. But the Gurkhas are part of the British Army, and so far the two sides, after protracted negotiations, have failed to hit on a formula for the diminutive but fierce soldiers to continue with their security job.

Britain fears that once Brunei is independent, the present sultan may be tempted to use the Gurkhas in an internal security role. He is reportedly demanding to be commander in chief of the Gurkha force.

In 1962, when Brunei was a fully dependent territory, elections left opponents of the royal family victorious. Sir Muda's father, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin, refused to accept the validity of the results and British troops were brought in to quell an attempted coup.

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