Tonga USA Today

SAN MATEO, California (Oct. 19) - With the release of the report of the National Committee for Political Reform last week, there has been some discussion of the way forward for the political reform process in the country.

The people are not yet totally out of the mourning period for his late Majesty, and so the report has not yet filtered down to the grass roots for further discussion and scrutiny.

Even if the country was not otherwise preoccupied, it will take time for the report and its recommendations to be fully appreciated and understood.

In the absence of any national consensus on what the report says, it might be useful to posture different views of what the report, taken as a whole, means and holds for the country.

This report is a frontal assault on the Monarchy. For despite the softly gentle approach, and numerous deferences to the Monarchy and its central place in Tongan life and culture, any reading of the report cannot help but conclude that this has been the most serious attack on the Monarchy in over a century of peace and stability.

It is not likely that the "opposition" will take any power sharing arrangement as a gesture of goodwill, but will see it as a sign of weakness, and thus emboldened, will settle for nothing less than total takeover.

In fact, Pohiva has declared partial victory (have achieved 60 percent of their demands) and swears to fight to the end till they gain the remaining 40 percent.

The search for "balanced will" is in reality a testing of willpower, and in this environment, the sharing of power is a zero sum game, the stakes are too high and its a duel to the finish, with the only possible outcome, being one of complete conquest on one side, and total capitulation on the other.

The committee has been at pains to point out that any reform in the political sphere will need to take place on the understanding that the ‘fale’ (house) of the nation remains organized along the traditional framework of King, Nobles and the People. The House of Tupou is thus still accorded paramount position in the society, and remains at the apex of the "'Otua mo Tonga" hierarchy. Its position though on the political front, the so-called "Westminister Constitutional Democracy" favored by the report, is very much weakened, and is threatened with extinction.

The report has not addressed the very critical issue of what happens to the society when the heart (as Professor Hau'ofa calls the House of Tupou) is loosing its power, and the force that holds the Tongan cultural ecosystem together is being attacked at its core. The collapse of centuries of relationships, roles, responsibilities and covenants of respect, duty and community may be too steep a price to pay for a non-existent utopia. What happens when the ship of state is no longer anchored to, and is being cut off from, its traditional point of reference and integration? What forces and what spirits are being unleashed when such separations occur? Will the perceived advantages gained by endorsing the "Westminister Constitutional Democracy", outweigh any potential losses thus incurred by weakening the Monarchy in the "'Otua mo Tonga" hierarchy? Even the wisdom of Solomon will be severely taxed to find an answer to this issue.

Which brings us to another view of the report. The report is simply a solution looking for a problem. From this perspective, the Government has taken the initiative to address people's concerns with good governance, and is vigorously pursuing a course of action to stamp out whatever ills that are supposed to beset the Executive. There is no need to tamper with the constitution, except in some light-handed way, and the report really has not addressed the problems that are of primary concern to the people. What the report does though is to force people to make choices that they do not have to make, and pick sides and allegiances that are naturally polarizing, thus creating division where there should be unity, and fostering animosity where there should be trust and harmony. These disruptions to the shared fabric of the peaceful society, for it permeates even down to the household and family level, would have been more pronounced if enough people paid attention, or perhaps even cared, but we cannot count on the state of indifference and ambivalence to sustain us in the long run. Besides, there are others out there who toil day and night to exploit any perceived fractures in the society to advance their political agendas and ambitions.

The country as a whole though, is attempting to stifle a collective yawn as talking heads and the punditocracy work themselves up to the requisite level of rage, smugness and whatever reaction is expected from their particular corner of the political spectrum. People in the meantime get on with the real business of taking care of end of year exams for their children, there is a few more ha'amos to do, His Majesty King George the V is wowing them up north, and its in church for crying out loud, Christmas is looming and before you know it there will be fakaafes, family gatherings and other important businesses to attend to.

From a purely political operative's perspective, the report is a lifeline for 'Akilisi Pohiva, that came just in the nick of time. Doing his best to discredit its work right from the start, including resigning from the committee in a tantrum, Pohiva now cannot find enough praises for the document. This is understandable since his own attempt at rousing up the populace has gone exactly nowhere, with nightly village meeting a rehashing of outright fabrications, rich in venom and vitriol, and devoid of truth, substance or any constructive ideas.

For the opposition, the report could not have come at a better time. The great outpouring of affection and respect for King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has obliterated any gains that they may have made in their anti-Monarchy campaign, and the momentum has gone out of its slow moving and sometimes stuck and wandering political wagon. The government, has moved steadily to address any grievances with the system, and has proved to be open and accessible to the people, the media and the people's representatives. His Majesty King Siaosi Tupou V endears himself to the people with his visiting and worshipping together with them, and is visibly moved by the warmth and generosity by which the people welcome Him. For the foreseeable future, the Monarchy can, if it so chooses, dominate the political and media landscape, and any political opposition has to be restarted up again from the beginning. The report, seen in this context, is viewed therefore as an absolute lifesaver, and helps to keep the political debate alive.

According to the Committee, the report is the best way forward for the country. Any other formulation will be disastrous. The report in a sense is God's gift to the nation. Such characterization though should not prevent us from giving it due analysis and scrutiny and to identify areas and room for further exploration. Throughout history, there has only been one report that was presented to the people, and was adopted without change or further discussion. And that is the one that Moses brought down from the mountain and presented to the children of Israel, and which we have come to know as the Ten Commandments.

The imposition of a timetable on its recommendations makes this report an instrument of the Devil. In a move hard to understand, the report goes ahead and recommends a timetable of activities, which is difficult to reconcile with its own findings and misgivings. The defining of a timeline on the report therefore renders the work seriously flawed, and poses a danger to the country. For the total process of ‘talanoa’ is not made up of media campaigns, of village hearings, or public announcements or even interviews and conversations. But it has to go together with incremental reconfigurations and realignments in relationships and values that need time to simmer and to settle into some comfort level in people's lives to avoid disastrous dislocations and discontinuities in the peaceful situation that we have in the country.

Peace exists, and endures, not because of a convergence of ideals, but because of a convergence of interests. And this convergence needs to take place, not only in dialogue, but in real life, in a society that is evolving in its understanding of itself and of the outside world. The basis for understanding and continued dialogue furthermore is based very much on the intangible parameters of trust, respect, sharing, goodwill etc, and hence out of control of any of the negotiating principals. The issue of a defined timetable therefore seems to be at odds with an organic process that needs to occur naturally, where communities evolve and readjust to one another in its own pace and its own heartbeat. The hunt for the "balanced will" should not emerge out of some time-constrained administrative concoction, but should be a natural outcome of the self-discovery of a society growing into its own common and shared destiny. The timetable is a straightjacket that imprisons the free flow of ideas and the notion of infinite futures, and forces parties that are still very much in a state of mutual suspicion and coiled up contention, to face one another. With the suggested schedule, the country is being needlessly corralled into an artificial zone of conflict and confrontation from which it might be difficult or even impossible to recover.

So which one is it? Is it a dagger in the heart of the nation, in the House of Tupou? A solution looking for a problem, a lifeline for Akilisi Pohiva, God's gift to Tonga, a work of the Devil, an exclamation point in the national conversation? Whatever the perspective, the Government owes it to the people to have an extended period of comment on the report, that ideas are still welcomed, and to get rid of this sense of finality that this is it, that for better or for worse, we now have to adopt this report. The range of good ideas has not been exhausted; the process should run several more iterations to allow people to further contribute to the debate. It is not yet time for options to crystallize for the simple reason that the volume of input to such an important subject has not been reached, or even come close to saturation point. It is when we exhaust the range of possibilities that policy options are then staked out and articulated for the benefit of all the people.

The options though are not at all pretty. If the status quo is maintained, there will be continued agitation, which may or may not escalate to unacceptable levels. If the Monarchy is forced to exist only as a symbol as some groups insist on achieving, the damage to the Tongan identity and culture will be irreparable and irreversible. It may also lead to Tonga’s first military coup. The other unpleasant choice is a physically splintered country, divided along ideological lines in a perpetual state of conflict with one another. With such stark choices, the value of the report then becomes apparent. Whatever viewpoint one takes, the report should be considered one of the appropriate instruments with which to approach the national project on political reform. It is a thoroughly Tongan document rich in the timeless values of the Tongan identity and sensitivities, and with an optimistic vision of the future.

The future needs not be one of political catastrophe. The Government has made the first move, and to its credit, has rejected the Temos maneuvering for a vote on the parts of the report, and has proposed a committee to extend, in a holistic manner, the work outlined in the document. The first duty of the committee is to put the timetable aside. And using the report as a basis, the people can be gently prodded to contemplate its fate at its leisure, and thus avoid rushing to sure and certain disaster.

Let the conversation begin.

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