Friendly Islands turn into enemy territory for royals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am

They are known as the Friendly Islands, but there is nothing benign about the political crisis threatening to engulf Tonga, one of the last absolutist monarchies.

A former British protectorate, the collection of 170 tiny coral islands just west of the international dateline is ruled by 86-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, with the help of a feudal nobility.

But the king is increasingly frail and Tongans insist the real power lies in the hands of his British-educated son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 56.

Tongans vote in a general election today against a backdrop of growing dissatisfaction with the monarchy, fired in large part by the perception the crown prince has abused his position to create a business empire which includes a telecommunications company, an airline and the national electricity provider.

The backlash began five years ago, when the king appointed an American former magnet salesman as his official court jester overseeing a US$26 million trust fund. The money was squandered on bad investments and never seen again.

Rumours are rife on the streets of the small, somnolent capital, Nuku'alofa, a town of brightly painted churches, snuffling pigs and gardens bordered by giant clam shells, where men and women still wear traditional woven pandanus kilts.

Tonga's tropical climate, white beaches and coral atolls make it a popular tourist destination, but beneath the holiday-brochure image lie sharp disparities in wealth.

Better education, and the experience of 100,000 expatriate Tongans who have tasted democracy in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, are fuelling demands for a fully representative government.

Until now, Tonga's elections, held once every three years, have been a largely pointless exercise. Two-thirds of Tonga's 30 MPs were hand-picked by the king and nobility and given jobs for life. The rest were elected by the country's 106,000 'commoners' but shut out of the decision-making process.

In the first sign of political change since the country drew up its constitution in 1875, the king has offered to elevate two of the commoner MPs to his cabinet, a move that pro-democracy activists hope will herald sweeping change.

'I think it's a good start,' said Akilisi Pohiva, the leader of the pro-democracy movement, who has been jailed twice by the royal family for defamation. 'It's a success for us. Ultimately we want a constitutional monarchy.'

But others dismiss the offer as a way of co-opting the democracy movement and stifling reform.

Tonga, they believe, is heading for civil unrest unless real change is initiated.

'It's a way for the royals to prop up their power without making any real concessions,' said Futa Helu, an academic and long-time critic of the regime.

'People hate their guts. The king is decrepit and the crown prince has no other interests but his own businesses. If the prince continues to abuse his power, there will be a popular revolt, maybe bloodshed.'