By Anapesi L. Kaili

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (Ano Masima News, July 29) - I have just returned from a three week visit to my homeland of Tonga, which has affected me in such a profound way that I am not even sure how to process it let alone write about it. Yet, in spite of my reluctance to address the political climate in Tonga, the voices of my Tongan people have moved me in such a powerful way that I have no other choice but to surrender to it.

In the 1960’s during the Women’s Movement the phrase "the personal is political" was coined to publicly illustrate how the experiences, feelings, and possibilities of one’s personal lives were not just a matter of personal preferences and choices but were limited, molded, and defined by the broader political and social setting (z-magazine, 1997). This phrase fundamentally argued that although we make personal decisions and are accountable for these decisions we cannot deny how political systems of power affect our decision making and the way in which we live our lives.

My journey back home to Tonga was more of a personal nature but somehow it became politicized as I clearly recognized that the personal is not only emotional, spiritual, and intellectual but it is also very political. I have tried as much as possible to remain out of sight when it comes to the political wrangling that is taking place in Tonga because for the most part I live thousands of miles away from Tonga, I don’t hold a Tongan passport, and although I racially, culturally and genealogically identify as Tongan, it would be quite presumptuous of me to assume that I know their realities and how they are affected on a very personal level.

After having returned home this time I realized more than ever how connected our struggles are as Tongan people regardless of our geographical locations. I do not pretend to fully understand what it is like to be residing in Tonga during this political turmoil nor am I illusionary about the privilege of being able to return to the US and write about my experiences and thoughts from the comforts of my own home, but I do know that as someone who has access to a public forum I am obligated to add my voice to this discussion, which I recognize as a discussion that is much greater than me and my own personal opinions and thoughts.

The nice thing about being in Tonga is that everywhere you go people are always willing to engage in a conversation with you. I took advantage of this magnificent opportunity and spoke to almost everyone who was willing to talk to me about their struggles, their triumphs, their daily experiences, but mostly about their take on the political climate of Tonga. It appeared everyone had an opinion about what was happening and spoke from a very personal standpoint and grounded their judgments in real life experiences. I will never forget the conversation I had with an elderly woman (in her seventies) at the Talamahu market. She explained to me that her son who worked in the medical field was going on strike because of the Tongan government’s refusal to raise the salary of the public/civil servants. She was very distraught about the whole situation and explained to me that all her life she was raised to respect and love the royal family and always believed that in return they would take care of the Tongan people, yet she is finding that in her old age, her kindness and respect has not been reciprocated and that she feared for the future of her grandchildren. She was very emotional about how the high cost of electricity forced many of her relatives to forego the basic necessity of electricity which affected their children’s daily routine of doing homework at night and the amount of food they could store without a refrigerator. She ended our conversation by reminding me that God knows everything and that what’s important is our faith in Him and somehow He will lead Tonga out of this political darkness.

Another mother who was selling her crafts at the market joined in our conversation and explained that she took part in the protest march that was in held in May, not because she had any ill feelings toward the Tongan government or the royal family nor did she disagree with their desires to venture into the business arena, but rather because she feared for the future of her children and as a concerned mother she was willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that her children will have a better future. When I pressed her further to talk about what kind of future she wanted for her children tears came to her eyes as she expressed that she just wanted her children to be happy, to be educated, and to live a life dedicated to God.

An elder gentleman who engaged in a conversation with me while I was shopping at the Look Sharp store mentioned that he was saddened by the irresponsibility of the Tongan government in turning their heads the other way while the people continued to suffer. He then paused for a moment and then quietly said "koe ‘Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofi’a" (PIR Editors Note: This is the Tongan national Motto roughly translated as "God and Tonga Is My Territory.") The way he spoke these words sounded more like a plea and a secret prayer than a motto. There we were in the middle of a store, with music blasting in the background and yet I felt captured by his pain and his grief but also empowered by his faith in God.

Local students in Tonga expressed their concerns about the way the youth has been neglected in political discussions and forums. They explained that although they make up the majority of the population their voices are hardly ever acknowledged nor heard. They hoped that the voting age would eventually change from 21 to 18 so that they could have a more proactive voice in who gets voted into parliament and what issues get discussed. Furthermore, many of them were apprehensive about graduating from high school because they knew there would be no employment for them in Tonga. Although the government had come out with an official press release acknowledging the high unemployment rate and the increasing crime among the youth, nothing has really been implemented. Elaine Howard, (Director of the National Tongan Youth Congress) and Fatai Tokolahi, (Prime Minster of the Youth Parliament) explained that they have been trying to work with other government ministries to address the high unemployment rates, high pregnancy rates, the high suicide rates, the high crime rates, the increase in sexually transmitted diseases, the increase in youth alcohol and drug consumption, yet they are either ignored, dismissed or are told to do something about it in their own organizations.

More recently, schools and government offices have been closed while the public/civil servant’s strike continues. Currently Tonga does not have a minimum wage law and according to certain reports the average minimum wage in Tonga is 60 cents/hr. (Tonga Human Rights Practices, 1993) and furthermore there hasn’t been a review of public sector salaries since 1987. HRH Prince Tu’ipelehake, who is in full support of the resolution put forth by the civil/public servants for the salary raise, explained that this resolution is asking for a 80% raise for those civil/public servants who are in the lower income bracket, which may seem like a lot, but when you put it into dollar amounts you will understand that those at the bottom level are only making $47 a week, an 80% raise would only mean an increase of $30 which will then have them making $77/week (Tala Koula Radio, 2005).

Even with thousands of people taking their grievances to the streets it appears that our government leaders just do not get it. The acting Prime Minister James Cecil Cocker responded by telling the public/civil servants to report back to work while their grievances will be discussed as they await the Prime Minister’s return to Tonga. I am not sure if he actually believed that he could dismiss the grievances of the people that easily or if he just did not know how to respond to them, but telling them to go back to work when they are already on strike is not the best way to handle the situation. It does not make any sense for the Tongan government to continue to raise taxes without creating an avenue for those who are paying those taxes to make a living. As of recent, the strike continues and it appears that no one is returning to work until these issues get resolved and hopefully the Tongan government will begin to understand that these issues are not just political but that they are also very personal.

It is appalling that those who are part of the higher echelon of society (not all of them, but many of them) do not comprehend that the Tongan people are not protesting because they dislike the royal family, or because they are all pro-democratic, or because they are vying for a seat in the government or campaigning for the next election; they are protesting because every political decision affects them personally. They are protesting because they want a better future for their children. They are protesting because ultimately they know that Tonga cannot continue to survive under its current conditions.

Returning home to Tonga this time has helped me to fully understand the resiliency of our Tongan people and how our survival as a community depends on our commitment and devotion to one another. I have been empowered by the strength of those who are directly affected by the political chaos that is occurring, yet somehow they have chosen to remain spiritually grounded and continue to dream of a future of endless possibilities for their children. Perhaps I may have crossed the line in addressing these very critical but disheartening issues, but I would have to be satisfied with the fact that it is a line worth crossing if it has in anyway represented the voices and experiences of numerous individuals who willingly opened their hearts and shared their thoughts with me.

This article is my way of joining my voice with my Tongan people who have been silenced for too long, who have suffered privately, who have been wounded at the hands of greedy government officials, and whose voices have been relegated to some liminal space in the margins of Tongan politics. I join with them in saying that this constant political exploitation should not be tolerated and that this type of rank-pulling and economic and cultural gate-keeping is something that is seethingly poisonous, treacherous, and just outright deceitful. Yes, this article is political but it is also very personal. I have come to recognize on a very real level that as Tongans, whether residing in Tonga or overseas, we are all engaged in a revolutionary struggle that moves beyond just making systemic changes in our Tongan governmental structures, we are in desperate need of political leaders who are not only passionate but also compassionate and who have the moral courage to inspire, to understand, to lead, to speak, to appreciate, to connect, to love, and to act. It is these types of leaders coupled with the fierce determination and faith of our Tongan people that will determine the outcome of our pilgrimage in this 21st century. There is no denying that the personal is definitely political.

Anapesi L. Kaili is Editor-in Chief of Ano Masima News.

September 14, 2005

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