"Don't believe the hype" - A Cyclone on the Horizion in Tonga

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing in Tonga. As King Tupou V Tonga prepares for his coronation in August 2008, the majority of the island’s population waits for a much more fundamental change in leadership: a shift of political power from the king to the people. The arrival of democracy to Tonga is inevitable. However, in what circumstances it arrives remains to be seen. One grassroots pro-democracy activist explained that “Tonga is currently at a crossroads waiting to see which of the two paths the monarchy will take: either they will hear the demands of the people and allow peaceful change or they will ignore the demands and people will be forced to take things into their own hands”.

The Monarchy

With regards to the political situation, there is a clear division between two classes within Tongan society. On the one side you have the monarchy and the nobility who owe their wealth and status to the population but for whom they have nothing but distrust and contempt. Their disdain for the people manifests itself in widespread corruption and within the ruling institutions the powerful abuse and manipulation the rules systemically. These practices continue to thrive despite being exposed by a number of organisations. Siosiua Pooi Pohiva of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement noted that,

“Over the years they [the Human Rights and Democracy Movement] have uncovered numerous instances of politicians’ abuse of power though generally no form of discipline will occur”.
At the worst the person in question may lose their post but they will reappear shortly afterwards with a new position within the ruling class.

As for the activities of the royal family, their contempt for their ‘subjects’ is quite simply unbelievable. The list of economic follies and wealth accumulation off the backs of the Tongan people is endless. Soldiers have to endlessly patrol the palace, just in case the subjects revolt once more. The coming coronation highlights their level of disdain.

  • Tens of millions of pa’angaare being spent to rebuild town in preparation for the coronation which will be attended by many of the King’s acquaintances including Elton John and Sean Connery.
  • 500,000 pa’anga has been spent on a crown to replace the already immaculate crown of the King’s late father along with a custom made robe (believed to be worth 500,000 pa’anga).
  • Construction of a gold scepter (believed to be worth 50,000 pa’anga)
  • Custom tailored attire for the King to wear during the three balls, concert, rugby match and parade which will be part of the festivities.
“All of this” one activist said “while whole families struggle to survive, splitting a tin of fish between eight people for dinner”.

The Movement

On the other side of the political divide is the pro-democracy movement. The movement began in the 1970s when a group of Tongans returned home after living overseas and were confronted by an abusive and opulent regime. They saw it as their responsibility and obligation to challenge and speak out against this malpractice and started to organise and agitate for change. Since those early days the movement has grown and now consists of six of the nine politicians who are popularly elected, the Public Service Association, the Friendly Island Teachers’ Association and is also believed to represent the majority of the Tongan population. The movements support is easily visible in Tonga, where a common bumper sticker proclaims Liliu 2008 - Poupou or Change 2008 - For Sure

Of course just how much support they have is not known as the government refuses to hold a referendum, as it is aware that the result will only expedite their own demise. The pro-democracy movement is currently circumnavigating this obstacle by conducting their own survey to determine the level of support they have and to present the results to the population and the regime to argue for change.

At the same time the movement is biting at the heels of the government, pressuring the government to keep their promise of political reform in 2010. Of course, state promises have been made for many years and movement activists have no illusions that democratisation will be handed down voluntarily by the establishment. But by concentrating activism around pressuring the government the movement is provided with a concrete rallying point and it serves to showcase to the public yet another example of the movement trying to meet the monarchy on it’s own terms.

The Future

The future of Tonga remains unwritten and uncertain. Yet those I have spoken to in Tonga have all been sure of one thing. Democracy, they say, is not a question of “if” but “when”. What is hazier is how?

As the people of Tonga are aware, the island nation is currently at the crossroads. The powerful could choose to take notice of the overwhelming popular demand for democracy and instigate change. This path, according to Mele Amanaki, Secretary General of the Public Service Association, will lead to a referendum next year or in 2010 and will only prove what everyone in Tonga already knows. Following this, the power of government will be shifted from the monarchy to the people. Alternatively, the powerful will continue to defy democracy and the people’s demands. If this is the road the powerful take then the people will take matters into their own hands.

Currently, the organised pro-democracy movement is providing an outlet for people’s anger at the establishment. However, if the organised movement is perceived to be wasting its time, people will channel their rage onto the streets and against the property of the ruling class. As was seen on 16th November ’06, when 60-75% of downtown Nuku’alofa was destroyed, both the pro-democracy movement and the government will be unable to contain the fury of the people. The vacant lots are a visible reminder of that day and night. Some in Tonga wonder whether at this time self-organised popular action akin to the struggle in Nepal in 2006 will occur. This uprising saw strikes, tax boycotts and marches sweep the country and as the security forces failed to regain control, the King had little choice but to relinquish power. Others speculate that political assassinations and direct action violence will force the monarchy to capitulate.

Whichever direction the wind comes from in Tonga over the next few years, it’s easy to see that a storm sits over the horizon. Past the blue skies and tranquil waters of this south Pacific paradise lies the cyclone of rebellion. How and when it hits this country again is the choice of the elite. Democracy now will avert the worst of the devastation. The rest of us must continue to hope and to act, so that when the movement in Tonga finally does reach the end of this stage in their struggle, the democracy they win allows the people to decide their own destiny and to control their future; a real people’s democracy in the Pacific. The people of Tonga deserve nothing less.

see also:

Pasifika Unite Stand Up Fight back

Movie: The Nu Face of Rebellion (Tonga 2006)

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