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By Sione Masina Email: 

February 25, 2002

The New Zealand Minister's/Government outburst about corruption in Tonga has stimulated much debate and discussions. One important issue that needs to be raised is globalization. The New Zealand Minister's accusations are an ongoing part of globalization. Tonga, like most countries, has chosen to live in and be part of the global community. It is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and most recently joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Tonga Government has accepted the conditions imposed on world trade by the WTO without widespread consultation and discussion and despite the growing opposition to the WTO, which is contributing to the widening gap between the haves and the have nots in the world (but that's another story!).

As "global citizens" Tongans must learn to live with criticisms about its system, especially from NZ. NZ provides aid to the Kingdom. Many Tongans live in NZ. The number of overstayers continues to rise and there is no shortage of Tongans trying to go to NZ. These reasons provide justification for the NZ government to comment on Tonga's "internal" affairs.

And as Professor Futa Helu said on a 60 Minutes television program on corruption in Tonga (which was banned in the Kingdom), "It is difficult to change things in Tonga, because the people in power are too powerful. We need others to speak out on behalf of the people. This is sometimes called outside interference"

As host to probably the largest Polynesian community in the world, New Zealand appreciates that it is difficult for people to speak openly and honestly in a highly hierarchical society like Tonga. Many are influenced/intimidated into silence by the nefarious nobles, the bullying bureaucrats and the vociferous wannabe elite.

Silence does not necessarily mean agreement or condonement. Silence in Tonga (and other Pacific Islands) can mean many things including unquestioning loyalty, family pressure, trade offs, cronyism and fear of repercussions. It is therefore often difficult to gauge the will of the majority.

The blame that it is all 'Akilisi Pohiva's fault as the source of information, must be addressed. The NZ Government is provided information/intelligence about the kingdom from many sources. These include the High Commission in Tonga, government officials at regional and international meetings, the Australians, Americans and countries with an interest in the Pacific Islands. Aid missions to Tonga provide opportunities for discussions and consultations with a wide variety of people and organisations. And Tongan officials, after a few drinks at cocktail parties, can be a source of information and misinformation. Is the Interpol office in Tonga another source?

NZ deals with many Tongans not wanting to return to the Kingdom. Only God (and possibly the NZ Government) knows what stories are told about the hierarchy in Tonga by (Tongan) lawyers representing Tongan overstayers wanting to remain in NZ. Do the many Tongans who have been deported after serving time in prisons in the U.S. and other countries other sources of information?

The NZ government forms its opinions, develops an attitude and takes a stand on issues related to Tonga based on a wide variety of sources of information - not just Mr. Pohiva.

Maybe the NZ Government accords more importance to the news and opinions of 'Akilisi than to the news officially provided by the government to sanitize, deodorize and justify government's opinions, blunders, action or inaction on pressing social and development problems. If this is the case, why?

One possible reason might be the fact that Pohiva has been regularly voted in as the Peoples' Number 1 representative for many years -- usually with many more votes ahead of Number 2. And he continues to be voted in despite the resources available to the Government to blame and discredit him at every opportunity. Does this give any reason for the NZ Government to think that Pohiva has the support of the (silent) majority of the people in Tonga?

The reference of the Tongan PM to the timing of the release of NZ's comments to coincide with the elections in Tonga shows how savvy he is and why many Tongans look to him with hope. It also raises many other issues.

If the powers that be do not want people to vote for Mr. Pohiva, they must provide reliable information, answer the questions he raises and treat the plight of the people to improve their lot with more respect. Don't just continue to blame Pohiva and his supporters. Sure he makes mistakes, is sometimes inaccurate and frequently undiplomatic. But, the silent majority continue to vote for him for they know that 'Akilisi is relentless in his quest for accountability and he has the interests of those he represents at heart. Which is more than one can say about the Government. The silent majority know that 'Akilisi will continue to ask the questions that most Tongans would not dare ask.

NZ would do everyone a favour by spelling out exactly what they consider to be "endemic corruption" in the Kingdom. This would provide a basis for discussing specifics. NZ might be surprised to find out that what they see as corruption, many Tongans view as traditional dues and obligations. And not only might the numbers of the silent majority increase, more Tongans might develop a better understanding of development issues such as globalization, good governance and the problems of changing from a traditional to a more democratic systems.

The experience of many countries trying to adapt/reconcile traditional systems to the changes in a rapidly changing world has highlighted that there is a fine dividing line between corruption and custom. Look at our neighbors, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Fiji.

Talking about the differences in perception not only between Tongans and New Zealanders, but also among Tongans, is a good starting point to clarify the issues that this incident has raised. It will go some way to create a better understanding between the two governments.

Blanket accusations, denials, apportioning blame, attacks and counterattacks divert attention from the real issues which need to be discussed openly and honestly so they can be addressed.

It also prevents us from learning from past mistakes.

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