Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Tonga grapples with democracy and the death of a king

About a third of the way between New Zealand and Hawaii lies the multi-island nation of Tonga. The word means ‘south’ in Tongan. Captain Cook called them the Friendly Islands because he arrived during the ʻinasi festival, the yearly donation of the first fruits to the Tuʻi Tonga. The Tu’i Tonga was the royal lineage - a dynasty which lasted 800 years until abolished in the mid 1800s. The new King of Tonga was established in 1875 and since that time there have been only four monarchs. Yesterday, the fourth of these, Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, died aged 88 in a hospital in Auckland. His death came at the end of a long, unspecified illness. His body will be flown to Tonga tomorrow. Preparations in the capital Nuku'alofa are under way for his funeral next Monday, with black and purple cloth being draped on buildings as a mark of respect. The mourning period is expected to last for many months.

His 57-year old-son Crown Prince Tupouto'a was sworn in immediately as the fifth monarch with the name of King George Tupou V. It was announced by proclamation of the Tongan government. In keeping with Tongan tradition, his coronation will be delayed until 2007. Tonga has a population roughly in excess of 100,000 scattered among 170 coral islands and achieved its independence from Britain in 1970. The earliest humans there came from South East Asia 2,800 years ago. They were known as the “Lapita” people for their pottery and they lived and traded in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji for a thousand years. The Tongans were at the height of their powers in the 12th century.

The Dutch navigators Willem Cornelisz Schouten and Jacob le Maire sailed by the northern islands in 1616. The rest of the archipelago was visited by Abel Tasman in 1643 during the voyage of discovery that also mapped Tasmania, New Zealand and Fiji. Cook visited the islands twice (1773 and 1777) in his second and final antipodean journeys. English missionaries arrived in 1797 and laid the foundations for British political influence. Internal wars in the early 1800s ended with the accession of King George Tupou I who unified Tonga and gave it a constitution (1862), a legal code, and an administrative system. His successor, King George Tupou II (1893–1918) concluded a treaty making Tonga a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga remained self-governing, with the British responsible for foreign affairs and defence. A new treaty in 1968 reduced British control, and Tonga became completely independent on 4 June, 1970.

The end of Tupou IV's reign is likely to aid the push for more democracy in the near-feudal kingdom, where the royal family has ruled with absolute power. Like many Tongans he suffered from obesity for most of his adult life. By 1976 he was listed in the Guinness book of Records as the world’s heaviest monarch at 210 kilos on the Tongan airport scales (the only ones in the country capable of weighing him). When he visited Germany, the German government would commission special chairs to support his weight. The King would take the chairs home, considering them as state presents. However by the 1990s he was a shadow of his former himself. He lost 70 kilos and led his people on a diet and exercise regime in a nation where coconut flesh and mutton flaps are the main staples.

Corruption within the royal family and government remains a problem. In 2001 the country lost $26 million in government funds (40% of its annual revenue) as a result of investment in a Nevada asset management company. Tonga made the money by selling citizenships to Hong Kong Chinese. The King appointed American businessman, Jesse Bogdonoff to manage the money and also made him his court jester. The jester had the last laugh as he and the $26 million disappeared. In 2004, Bogdonoff agreed to pay Tonga a $1 million settlement. A pro-democracy movement rose against the King as he became increasingly autocratic. In May 2005, 10,000 people – one tenth of the population - rallied for constitutional reform. Three months later, 3,000 civil servants went on strike, demanding better pay. This year, pro-democracy leader Fred Sevele became the first elected commoner to serve as the country's prime minister. King George Tupou V will need to show some of his father’s charisma and resilience as well as more humble qualities his father did not have if Tonga is to emerge from its crises with its reputation and finances intact.

No comments: