These are tough times for the tiny nation of Tonga, the South Pacific's last surviving monarchy. About 10,000 protesters - a tenth of the population - marched through the capital, Nuku'alofa, last week to the residence of their ailing monarch, 87-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, to demand political reform. They presented a petition bearing thousands of signatures calling for wide-ranging democratic reform and gave the king a month to initiate change. A second petition demanded the sacking of the entire cabinet, the dismissal of the Prime Minister, Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, one of the king's two sons, and the modernising of the Tongan constitution, which has barely changed since it was drawn up in 1875. 'He is conscious that reform will happen. He is very conscious of what's going on in the political arena,' the king's private secretary told protesters. Such smooth assurances may not be enough to contain some Tongans' anger. One of the protest leaders, Sione Vuna Fa'otusia, has said extremists are talking about assassinating the royal family. 'Not just burning [houses]. They are talking about eliminating people,' he told the Australian SBS television network. 'They are talking about the royal family.' Tongan journalist Pesi Fonua hopes it will not come to that. 'A few hotheads say things, but I would say that 80 per cent of people don't look at it that way,' he said. Tonga, a scattered archipelago nicknamed the Friendly Islands, is a semi-feudal kingdom where power lies in the hands of the king and a small group of hereditary nobles. But the Polynesian nation has seen unprecedented unrest this year as dissatisfaction with the royal family grows. A six-week strike by 3,000 public servants demanding pay rises of 60 to 80 per cent ended on September 5 after the government agreed to their demands. The crippling strike came after ministers and senior civil servants received salary increases of nearly 100 per cent. It swiftly became a focus for calls for wider political reform. In a rare outburst of violence, arsonists burned down one of the king's residences and several government vehicles were set alight. When the king flew to New Zealand for medical treatment, the protests spread there, with members of the country's large Tongan diaspora joining calls for change and engaging in scuffles outside the king's Auckland residence. Two-thirds of Tonga's 30 MPs are hand-picked by the king and his nobles, with the rest elected by the nation's 106,000 commoners - but they are denied much influence in the running of the country. Although the king is respected, his three children have become increasingly unpopular. The king's eldest son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 57, is seen by ordinary people as greedy and out of touch. In May, thousands marched through Nuku'alofa to protest against a steep rise in electricity rates charged by a company controlled by the crown prince, who was educated at Sandhurst military college in Britain. The prince's other enterprises include an airline, a mobile phone company and brewery. His sister, Princess Pilolevu, 55, has made a fortune from controlling Tonga's satellite slots. 'There is a network of businesses owned by the royal family and basically they get all the cream in Tonga,' said Peseti Ma'afu, vice-chairman of the Tongan National Business Association. The nobles have threatened to bring in Tonga's small but effective army if there is further trouble. 'The royal family has been dragging its feet on political and economic reform for years, but I think they now realise that something needs to be done,' said Fonua. The signs, however, are not good. During an extraordinary session of Tonga's tiny parliament last Thursday, noble MPs refused to discuss calls for political reform. If they are banking on the patience of ordinary Tongans, they are playing a dangerous game.