THE KING IS TO BLAME FOR TONGA’S TURMOIL

Commentary

By Kalafi Moala

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, Sept. 22) - The South Pacific island nation of Tonga has become unstable politically, socially and economically.

As its absolute ruler, the King is at the center of the tension now so apparent.

Under Tonga’s system of government, the King has the power to hire and fire cabinet ministers at whim and to approve all his government’s policies.

No legislation can become law without his signature. Being the man who sits at the top of Tonga’s power structure, the "buck stops with him".

Tonga’s decline toward instability has been rapid. The King should take deliberate steps immediately to prevent the situation getting even worse.

The religious and pro-monarch Kotoa Movement, which has Princess Pilolevu Tuita, the king’s only daughter, as its patron, has turned on the government in recent weeks, using their television programs and newspaper to attack the Prime Minister and his elder brother Crown Prince Tupouto’a for the dismissal of three Cabinet ministers.

Kotoa plans a protest march calling on the Prime Minister, the King’s son, to resign because he is alleged to have carried out the unjustified dismissal without due process.

Those dumped included the powerful Police Minister, Clive Edwards, a man who arguably has been likened "a bull in a China shop" for the way he enforced Tonga’s laws and asserting a tyrannical will into what was otherwise a serene society.

He has been regarded as a strong supporter of Kotoa. The leaders of the movement are among his close friends.

The protesters should not march on the Prime Minister’s office. They should focus their attention on the Palace.

They should call on the King to make the changes so necessary in the government. He is the only person who can order them legitimately.

For years the call for changes to be made to the political structure has been ignored. But this state of things cannot continue to be. The king must take account. It is the king who appointed his son as Prime Minister.

If the Prime Minister has been making unwise decisions - and he has - then the King should sack him.

The argument that the King may not have known what was going on and government decisions were made without his approval are not valid.

Whenever things have gone tragically wrong over the past two decades, as they often have, a fragmented royal public relations machine has gone into overdrive in an effort to protect the King and shelter him from responsibility for what happened.

After it was revealed early in the 1990s that Tonga had breached its Constitution by selling its citizenship and passports, mainly to Chinese out of Hong Kong, the Minister of Immigration then took responsibility.

The Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time admitted Tonga was in breach of its own Constitution.

The decision to sell Tongan passports and citizenship was made by the Privy Council, the highest executive authority in Tonga. The King, who presides over the council, was sheltered from responsibility for that decision. Others took the blame.

Another example was the loss of Tonga’s Trust Fund in a scandalous investment scheme overseas. Sadly, it was confirmed in 2000 that funds raised through the passport sales had been lost in a high-risk investment scheme in the United States. Two cabinet ministers became the fall guys and resigned.

An embarrassing tragedy for the island kingdom emerged when it was revealed a man the King appointed as his court jester was behind this loss of more than US$26 million from the nation’s coffers, money Tonga could ill afford to lose.

Again the King was provided with shelter from responsibility, this in spite of his role in the Privy Council, a body charged with deciding important money matters such as investing of millions of public funds overseas.

There seems to be a lot of tiptoeing around the person responsible for the mess Tonga is in. For anyone to argue His Majesty is not responsible is tantamount to declaring he is no longer king, or at least he is not functioning in his role as monarch.

What King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV says goes. Why blame others for what he is responsible for? He should be held accountable for his country’s turmoil.

It’s time people acknowledged what they have always known - the government of Tonga is the King, and the King is the government of Tonga. When government fails, it is the king who has failed.

Any significant decisions in the running of Tonga come within the domain of the king’s knowledge. Whatever happens in Tonga comes under the watch of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.

The country’s direction in economic development did not just happen by chance. His Majesty designed the policies, even when he was the Prime Minister some decades ago, when his mother, Queen Salote was still alive.

Tonga follows Royal design. If the King was not the designer of some of the policies and practices of his government, he definitely approved them. He has the final say in all that goes on.

Any whining by his apologists that the King simply did not know, that ministers had acted inappropriately without his knowledge, is utter nonsense. Of-course he knows.

Observers of Tongan affairs well know of the King’s notoriously failed schemes over the years. Notable is his direct involvement in an array of issues over the past few years which have led to the current instability.

Of relevance in the debate about Tongan politics is that the King appoints Cabinet ministers. They are not appointed by the Prime Minister, himself the King’s appointee.

Presumably the King knows why he appoints each minister, even though there has never been any explanation of his reasoning given to the Tongan public.

It has been the King’s attitude over the years - or should I say the Government’s - that the people do not have the right to know what and why the Government does things.

A glaring example of the Government’s attitude toward the public’s right to know came recently when the Chief Secretary to Government, ‘Eseta Fusitu’a, said in Nuku’alofa when she gave witness at a court case against government: "The public do not know what’s wrong, or what’s right, but government does…" (Constitutional challenge court hearing – August 30, 2004).

Then we have the amendment to the Constitution restricting freedom of speech and press freedom, and the media and newspaper laws passed by Parliament at the end of last year. They had to be approved by the King before becoming law.

Naturally, the King controls the majority voice in Parliament. His ministers form the majority block of 12 (currently 11) in the 30-seat House, and, together with the nine noble representatives, he does "rule" Parliament.

Pro-democracy leader ‘Akilisi Pohiva has often accused Parliament of being a "rubber stamp" for the Royal family. He’s quite right. Only nine members of Parliament are accountable to the people of Tonga.

The remainder is accountable either to the King or the minority noble titleholders, whose very existence is maintained by Royal assent.

If the 86-year-old King is really too old or inept to rule, then he needs to be replaced by his heir who, in turn, will need to take responsibility for his actions.

Unfortunately for the Tongan people, the Royals have put their "eggs" for development in an economic basket being dismantled about them. They have set their hearts on bringing economic development to Tonga to the exclusion of political reform.

The twists and turns of this economic development strategy have ended up with the Royals owning major businesses that were once public enterprises; and Tonga’s economic development plan does look like a "get rich quick" scheme for the Royals and their cronies.

They have either failed to read their history books or have not comprehended their content. They seem not to understand that economic development is inevitably tied to political and social development.

The "economic" relates to resources and the "political" to the authority of justly distributing those resources.

The Royals live as though they have a divine right to political power to control the kingdom’s resources while simultaneously they try to enforce an economic development strategy guaranteed to ensure they remain at the top of the beneficiaries’ pile.

Their closest advisers have not told them it does not work that way. It never did and it never will.

September 22, 2004

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