GROWING SPECULATION OVER TONGAN KING'S SECRET WEALTH

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (January 18, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---The 83-year-old king of the impoverished Pacific nation of Tonga has US$ 350 million stashed in a secret bank account, a Tongan democracy movement newspaper alleged Friday.

King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV's palace in Nuku‘alofa declined to comment on the latest reports published in Kele‘a, a newspaper edited by commoner Member of Parliament ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

Kele‘a published a palace letter commenting on the king's "personal funds" said to be worth over US$ 350 million.

Given that the kingdom's official gross domestic product is US$ 225 million, and the royal controlled government's latest budget just 87 million pa‘anga (US$ 23 million), it has not been explained where the money might have come from.

But last month the palace used the government-owned Tonga Chronicle to claim a Tongan national living in Australia was blackmailing the king over gold bullion allegedly taken from the 1806 wreck of an English sailing ship. The gold was said to be worth billions of dollars.

The king has also come under severe scrutiny after his official court jester, American Buddhist Jesse Bogdonoff, lost around 26 million dollars of royal controlled funds taken out of U.S. Treasury bonds and put into a now disappeared Nevada viatical investment company.

Kele‘a Friday published what it said was a November 8, 1991, letter written by the king's private secretary, then the late Ofa Tuionetoa, to a local Japanese man, Charlie Onodera, who served as the king's financial adviser before his death.

"I wish to confirm the arrangement made between yourself, in your capacity as liaison officer to His Majesty, and His Majesty... this afternoon," the letter printed in the newspaper said.

"First to promote foreign investment in the kingdom, you are to act as financial adviser to his Majesty.

"... His Majesty's ‘Top Secret’ account numbers with the overseas bank have been given to you. Please do remember that these are very confidential.

"...His Majesty's personal funds, as revealed to you, is in the vicinity of over 350 million US dollars."

"Thank you very much again for your dedicated service to His Majesty."

The newspaper said Pohiva, who leads the pro-democracy movement in the kingdom, had twice sought a response, on Legislative Assembly letterhead, from the king and his staff. There was no response.

As a near absolute monarch, the king and nobles control two-thirds of the assembly.

The Tongan government referred inquiries to the king's private secretary. E-mail questions from AFP to his address were receipted but have not been replied to.

The monthly Matangi Tonga news magazine, received here Friday, carried an interview with the king in which the question of a blackmail attempt was put to him.

The royal family claimed a Tongan, Josh Liava‘a, now a Sydney nightclub owner, tried to extort two million dollars from the king to keep secret details about the shipwreck.

A decade ago Liava‘a had an affair with the king's only daughter, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, who wrote graphic love letters to him. The letters were recently published in the kingdom.

Matangi Tonga put the blackmail allegations to the King who replied: "It is just a story."

Matangi Tonga also asked Crown Prince Tupouto‘a how the issue should be handled.

"I am sure that His Majesty is as interested as anyone to learn about this secret information and the only possible course of action would be to ask Liava‘a to reveal it.

"It would also be important to establish whether or not Liava‘a is mentally competent."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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