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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 26, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---Tonga's extravagant royal family has hit back at corruption allegations from New Zealand with an extraordinary public relations campaign of sheep jokes and complaints over bad food aid.

Infuriated by the criticism, Prime Minister Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka ‘Ata has also accused New Zealand of trying to subvert next month's general election.

This is despite there being no doubt as to the result of the election. Lavaka ‘Ata, 43, has his position for life, courtesy of an appointment by his father, King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV.

Aside from the lifetime appointment for Lavaka ‘Ata, the 83-year-old monarch rules his 100,000 subjects with near absolute authority.

The royal family's fury stems from leading commoner politician ‘Akilisi Pohiva's allegation that the king has millions of dollars hidden in overseas bank accounts.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff then said on February 12 controls had been imposed to avoid New Zealand's annual six million NZ dollars (about 2.5 million US) to the country being "subverted by corruption."

He also said there was "regrettably little sign of major constitutional change on the horizon" in Tonga.

His associate minister, Matt Robson, further enraged Tonga's royal family by saying their nation suffered "endemic corruption."

In a recent statement, Lavaka ‘Ata said Goff's comments were a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the March 7 parliamentary elections and delivered a backhander to New Zealand aid.

"We should not be under any illusion that they do this for our own good. We remind ourselves that aid does not solely benefit us as a country, but aid benefits the donor as well," he said.

"One example would be that they give us aid and they dump mutton flaps on the Tongan market; mutton flaps that are hardly edible by the health standards of New Zealand."

An odd public relations technique launched by the government has been to send international media apparently spontaneous letters of support from commoners -- accompanied by a demand they be printed.

One such, written by Fisi‘ihoi Sefesi, said it was "totally disgusting" that New Zealand aid was assisting the growth of democracy in the kingdom, according to press statements from the government information service.

Another, from a Sitiveni Finau, attacks New Zealand's "mindless allegations."

"It was alleged that corruption was evidenced by life style and the schooling of children overseas. It is not a crime to live comfortably, or to send one's children to study overseas," Finau wrote.

The letter-writer then launched a personal attack on Robson, telling him and New Zealanders in general "to take his money and shove it."

"From a country where sheep outnumber humans three hundred to one, it is easy for the wolf to come in sheep's clothing, to have the wool pulled over our eyes, to have them spin some yarn, while the lambs are being led to the slaughter," he wrote.

A Fiji legal source told AFP that last week the Tongan royals were seeking help from international public relations firms with representatives in Suva.

"They know they are in trouble, and they want the best help to make it look better," he said.

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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