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Radio Australia PACIFIC BEAT Melbourne, Australia

December 26,2001

How is the only monarchy in the Pacific coping with the transition into the 21st Century? Part one of our series on Tonga looks at the country’s political system.

On a recent visit to Tonga, Pacific Beat’s Bruce Hill took a close look at Tonga’s political and religious institutions, to assess how Tonga is managing the transition into a new century.

He reports that politics and religion -- the two central pillars of Tongan society -- form the basis for what critics say is a conservative, undemocratic society, ill-equipped to deal with the realities of contemporary life.

BRUCE HILL: The Kingdom of Tonga is, as everyone there keeps reminding you, is the only monarchy in the Pacific, and it’s a real monarchy where King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, doesn’t just reign, he rules. The political system was founded by King George Tupou I in 1875 with a written constitution lauded at the time as progressive, but which modern critics label as hopelessly out of date for the 21st century.

There is a Parliament where matters of state are indeed debated, but it doesn’t have real power. That resides in the King’s Privy Council. Parliament in Tonga has nine representatives elected by the people, but nine are chosen from among the 33 nobles by the nobles themselves, and 12 MP’s are appointed by the King. So the commons, which are sovereign in most parliamentary democracies, have the odds decisively stacked against them in Tonga.

Conservative and Christian

Tonga’s deep conservatism and sense of Christian identity cannot be ignored while looking at the political system, argues college principle Dr. Mata Falangitataufu.

"At the beginning of the reign of King George Tupou the First he made a covenant with God at Vava’u way back in the last century about us being the possession of God and God being our God and we are his people," he says.

"Out of the covenant comes the motto of the country -- God and Tonga Are My Inheritance. The Tongan wording is ‘Ko e Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofi'a’. Tofi’a in Tongan means land or source of life, so in that way Tonga, God and Tonga are my source of life. For a Tongan to live he has to be related to God and related to that land given to him."

Democracy and human rights

Tonga’s long-serving democracy activist, Akilisi Pohiva, says he prefers to look ahead, embracing change. His movement is criticized for being un-Tongan or western -- criticisms Pohiva says are simply designed to divert attention from the shortcomings of the present political structure in Tonga.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the system we are using now is undemocratic," he says. "It is undemocratic in a sense that our people are not directly involved in the process of decision making. Under the present system the King has the ultimate power to make decision in Privy Council and in Cabinet where there is no single representative of the people."

It’s not just Tonga’s political system that has some people upset, there’s the matter of human rights as well. The Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement’s office director Lopeti Senituli alleges the inappropriate use of force by police is one example of a lack of respect for human rights. Senituli says in August, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court fined a police officer $7,000 (Tongan Pa’anga) for bashing a prisoner while in police custody. "And from our records I think this year there have been about 15 incidences of people complaining of being bashed by the police," he says.

Police Minister Clive Edwards agrees there is a problem, but insists he’s cracking down on it hard. "Anybody who’s been caught bashing anyone who’s in custody or not in custody, make that clear, will not serve with the force," he says. "They’ll be dismissed and are being dismissed. A number of them will be leaving the force in the next few weeks because I’m taking them to Cabinet for dismissal. They’re not fit enough to serve in the force if they start hitting people."

Evolution or revolution?

The pressure for change in Tonga’s present almost feudal political and social system is not just coming from some ordinary people. Even some nobles are talking about change.

One of them is Honorable Luani, an aristocrat who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and who now works for a living as a senior public servant. He believes as Tonga modernizes, it will retain a village-based system as its backbone. But he believes the way that system works in practice is changing.

"I think people today need more accountability," says Honorable Luani. "For example, how you fulfill your obligation to the people in the best way that at the end all parties concerned or involved are happy? Irrigation is one thing, to improve and develop the village, that would be to me the foundation of any relationship between the landowner and his tenants."

Democracy activist Akilisi Pohiva says the present feudal monarchy cannot continue, and if traditionalists try to prevent change there could be an explosion, possibly an open revolt against the King. "There may be people coming along and force the King out of the throne. There may be coups," he warns. "The possibility for good is in there. The possibility for revolution is there."

Most people in Tonga wouldn’t go that far though. Evolution rather revolution seems more likely. But with King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV now 83 years old, and his son, Crown Prince Tupouto’a poised to succeed him and pressure growing for substantial political reform, the Pacific’s last remaining kingdom is likely to face changes sooner rather than later.

For additional reports from Radio Australia/Pacific Beat, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia/Pacific Beat.

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