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Matangi Tonga reprints 2008 Press Release

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, April 10, 2009) - The Sovereign of the only Polynesian Kingdom, whose official coronation took place on August 1 2008, is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people. They see Tonga's royal heritage as integral to the country's culture and identity, but favour a more representative, elected Parliament. The King agrees with them.

[Matangi Tonga editor's note: To clarify the discussion over the King surrendering his powers, we are reprinting below a Press Release that was issued by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain on July 28, 2008.]

KING George Tupou V, the ruler of the South Pacific nation of Tonga, sees himself as an architect of change inspired by a vision of a Kingdom reborn.

While the 60-year-old bachelor has inherited the mantle of a Monarchy with its roots deep in an ancient past, he is helping to guide his country through a period of political and economic reform for the 21st century.

The Sovereign of the only Polynesian Kingdom, whose official coronation takes place on August 1st, is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people. They see Tonga's royal heritage as integral to the country's culture and identity, but favour a more representative, elected Parliament. The King agrees with them.

The public is increasingly aware that he quietly champions a more open system of government. King George had felt for a long time that Tonga's political system was not evolving quickly enough and that it should keep pace with the diversifying of the economy. He gave his support to an electoral and parliamentary reform process based on extensive public consultations and a search for consensus among legislators.

The King's approach reflects his conviction that the Monarchy is an instrument of change, not an obstacle to it. He cites the emancipation of ordinary Tongans from the bonds of feudalism by his ancestor King George Tupou 1st. His father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who died two years ago, launched an era of transformative social and economic development when he ascended the throne in 1965.

As Crown Prince, King George privately urged the late Monarch to liberalise the method of making appointments to Cabinet. In line with the Tongan Constitution, ministers were previously selected solely at the discretion of the King. After considering the opinions of his son and heir, King Taufa'ahau concluded that establishing broader democratic representation in Cabinet was in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution. He felt the document's objective was to bring together monarch, chiefs and people in administering all state affairs.

King Taufa'ahau, therefore, accepted the advice of the Crown Prince that appointment of ministers should in future be made on the recommendations of an elected Prime Minister. It was an important voluntary transfer of authority.

To King George, this was a binding precedent. He has gone further and given an undertaking that he will be guided by the recommendations of the Prime Minister of the day in all matters of governance, with the exception of the Monarch's judicial powers. These relate to the appointment of judges and king's counsel, clemency and commuting prison sentences. King George is strongly of the view that they should never be subject to political considerations. He has appointed a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council consisting of four Law-Lords-in-Waiting to advise him on the exercise of these powers.

Consistent with his new definition of monarchial duty and conduct, the King is strictly impartial when he has to meet with Ministers and Members of Parliament. He does not now make personal statements on political issues and usually refuses requests for media interviews.

King George is committed to further devolution of more royal prerogatives to Parliament. There will be a ceding to Cabinet of some of the functions of the Privy Council, over which the King is constitutionally required to preside.

His Majesty wishes to ensure that the Monarchy is fully prepared for elections in 2010 under a revised voting system granting the majority voice in Parliament to the people.

He feels this can be done without sweeping amendments to a constitution that he regards as the cornerstone of the Kingdom's peace and stability. Granted by King George Tupou 1st in 1875, it is one of the world's oldest written constitutions.

The new Monarch's reign will be measured not only by the success of electoral change and democracy. Tonga faces serious and urgent challenges in strengthening its economy, lifting investment and boosting exports.

This will complement its substantial lead among Pacific Island countries in an international rating of social progress and standards of living. It is the highest-ranking regional state in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human development index. Its current placing at number 55 in a survey of 177 countries classifies the Kingdom as achieving high human development. No other Pacific Islands nation has done this. Tonga's nearest challengers are Samoa and Fiji, which come in at 77 and 92 respectively. These positions qualify them as attaining medium human development.

According to the UNDP, Tonga's standard of living has improved dramatically over the last 50 years and there is now little absolute poverty. The UNDP index assesses development more broadly than just concentrating on economic status, as defined by gross domestic product (GDP). It covers health and life expectancy, accomplishments in education and decent living standards.

The Kingdom has also been reported as doing well in the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative. The MDG targets include reducing poverty, enhancing education and health and protection of the environment.

Tonga was highlighted by the UN as one of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region making better than average progress towards the MDGs. It was positioned alongside such outstanding performers as China, Malaysia, the Russian Federation, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

King George tracks this development score sheet closely, as well as the Government's efforts to revitalize the economy following civil disturbances in November 2006 in the central commercial district of the country's capital Nuku'alofa. Eight people were killed, fires gutted many buildings and destroyed numerous businesses. The perpetrators appeared to be motivated by politics and resentment against Chinese traders.

Recently, a team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) confirmed the economy was in recovery. The IMF looks on Tonga as an example for all small Island states conducting revenue reform. IMF tax experts and senior advisers studied the success the Government had achieved in this.

Like the Government of Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, King George is keen to see greater efficiency and productivity in the public service, improvements to financial management and additional funding for infrastructure.

He is an advocate of the private sector as the key to growth. The King envisages the setting up of more small businesses and increased diversification of tourism, agriculture and fisheries. He argues that a shortage of trained business managers is holding back commerce.

He will maintain the royal tradition of support for education. The Kingdom has an impressive record of educational achievement, with a literacy rate of over 98 per cent and one of the longest established systems of compulsory schooling in the Pacific.

With an eye to the geopolitics of the future, King George has been heard to ponder on the possibility of Tongan children studying three foreign languages. English because of its universal usage, and Japanese and Mandarin, reflecting the rise in influence in the Pacific of Japan and China.

An avid follower of the IT revolution, the King thinks Tonga can overcome its isolation and open up economic opportunities by increasingly wiring-in to the global market through digital and broadband technology.

The King's ambition for Tonga goes much further than improving conventional social indicators and spurring economic and commercial development. Those close to him say he wishes to encourage a flowering of culture and art as facets of a society that "mirrors the dreams, aspirations and creativity of its people in all their fullness." The rebuilding of Nuku'alofa is a starting point for this renaissance. In the Monarch's mind it is an opportunity to lay the foundation for a new Tongan civilization for this century.

King George, the progeny of an ancient dynasty of sacred rulers, is known for his individuality, formidable intellect and learning. His hopes and aims for Tonga, his abilities, erudition and foresight, are often overlooked by overseas news media. Many articles about him tend to be trivialized, sensationalised or stereotyped and marked by misinformation and error. There has been plenty of this kind of journalism in the lead up to King George's coronation. The real man gets lost in the headlines and the coverage.

For instance, his ownership of a London taxi, 12 years old and showing signs of terminal decline,  is often played as a significant news angle. His Majesty simply says these vehicles appeal to him and he will probably buy another one. (He recently purchased a replacement.) His preference for a product associated with the British capital is not surprising for one who is an admirer of Britain and its way of life.

King George's sartorial choices have also become a disproportionate part of the royal media story. Occasionally, for instance, he has worn national dress of countries he has visited. For his daily attire he often favours elegantly tailored tupenu, a skirt-like garment for Tongan men, complemented by a silken version of a traditional ta'ovala waist mat and black Chinese-style slippers. On state engagements he might appear in full military uniform, with spiked helmet. That should not be regarded as unusual. He is, after all, Commander-in-Chief of the Tonga Defence Services.

The King's villa, with its entrance hall, pillars and high ceilings, formal lounge for receiving visitors and elegant dining room, sometimes attracts unfriendly media comment. But it is smaller and probably less imposing than, say, the splendid and spacious mansion in Fiji, that is home to that country's president.

King George's commercial investments have also been at the centre of reportage and commentary, some of it quite misleading or plain wrong. He has stressed previously that Tongans did not mind members of their Royal family going into business, as long as this was restricted to agriculture. But the King has said he has no talent for farming. He decided therefore, when he was Crown Prince, to invest in other areas of the economy, with the attendant commercial risk. He has previously made the point that royalty in other countries have investments and business interests.

Soon after he was proclaimed Monarch in September 2006, the Office of the Lord Chamberlain announced that His Majesty would dispose of all his commercial interests. This was in compliance with the demands and obligations of his high office. The divestment is virtually complete.

The personality and mind of King George were nourished and honed by a globalised education mapped out by his father to prepare him for kingship. He went from Tonga High School to private schooling in New Zealand and Switzerland, the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and to Oxford for a foreign-service course.

King George absorbs knowledge ceaselessly and reads constantly and indiscriminately both for pleasure and study. His friends say he has a remarkable capacity for retention of facts and often recounts extracts from books, reports and speeches.

Ratu 'Epeli Nailatikau, His Majesty's ranking relative in Fiji, recalls that on a visit to that country in 1982, Queen Elizabeth was heard to say that if there was a living example of a walking encyclopedia it was King Taufa'ahau of Tonga. Ratu 'Epeli says King George takes after his father. He reads music, plays the piano and double bass, can converse in French and German, has a smattering of Chinese and Japanese and is still able to write in the Latin he learned at school.

It is difficult to appreciate the full scope of King George's interests. He talks with authority on Tongan culture and history, religions and literature, music, statecraft, diplomacy and world affairs, past and present. He knows about military strategy and modern armaments, architecture, art and cuisine.

More than 20 years of service as Tonga's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence brought the former Crown Prince into contact with numerous world leaders. He pursued a foreign policy, established by his father, of protecting the independence of a small nation that had survived western imperialism with its sovereignty intact. It is a matter of pride to Tongans that when the Great Powers were making empires in the 19th century, Tonga was never conquered, occupied or colonized.

On numerous occasions King George acted as Prince Regent and presided over meetings of the Privy Council, especially when his father's health began to fail.

Through his ministerial rank, the king-to-be served in Cabinet and the Legislative Assembly. He acquired a deep understanding of policy-making, the rules of debate, the executive and legislative functions of governance and the vital issues affecting the Kingdom's development.

He became Colonel-in-Chief of the battalion-sized Tonga Defence Services when he was Crown Prince and was closely involved in its modernization. He is now Commander in Chief. Today the TDS has a reputation for professionalism; it has acquitted itself well in peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville, in a multi-national deployment exercise in Mongolia and in Iraq, where it has deployed a third contingent as part of coalition forces in that country.

King George is quietly proud of his role in starting a TDS technical training scheme and computer school, which is open to the public.

Social contact and interaction within Tongan society for the Monarch are rigidly controlled by custom and convention. To the Tongans his person is sacred. This goes beyond culture and heredity. It is actually proclaimed in the Constitution. His relationships with the people are defined by this fact and by the strict "tapu" and protocols that surround those of high status. When they are at an event attended by the King, Tongans maintain a respectful distance from his person, speak with lowered voices and stoop deferentially when they must approach the Monarch. On these occasions, they are particularly conservative in their dress. The King, for his part, carries himself with chiefly dignity, part of a code of behaviour the Tongans call anga faka'ei'eiki - and converses in the courtly language expected of Tongan royalty.

The customary rules, however, do not place an insurmountable barrier between the Monarch and his subjects. There are channels of communication for both ceremonial and more informal settings. These might be through an extended kainga group of relatives, or via church and social organisations. The King may listen directly to representations and requests. If he does not reply immediately his decision will be relayed later through a "talking chief " spokesperson.

When he is meeting people on his official duties, the King often makes unscripted remarks in eloquent Tongan. On a tour, shortly after becoming sovereign, he turned to a Biblical theme, urging those who were welcoming him to love one another and their neighbours. The King dwelt on this as a basis for social order. Then he encouraged the people to seek prosperity through their own initiative, reflecting his own belief in private enterprise. To reinforce this, he visited a snack food-manufacturing project supported by village women. An aide traveling with him said His Majesty spoke in a manner that was "utterly inspiring".

It was on this tour that the word went out that His Majesty did not wish to receive traditional gifts of money that Tongans are inclined to give their Monarch. This was King George's way of indicating he understood that cash was often short in the villages and that he preferred people to use what they had for their own needs. Last year, His Majesty decided he would donate part of the privy purse he receives from the Government to his mother Queen Mata'aho, to assist with her work for the disabled. He has started to use the power of royal patronage to raise money for the needy. In May he arranged a charity concert that resulted in a substantial donation for Tonga's Child Cancer Foundation.

The lethal riot in Nuku'alofa in November 2006 was an early test of King George's leadership. It was a calamity of unprecedented proportions for a country with a peaceful and friendly reputation.

When he closed a session of Parliament a week later, King George was in sombre mood. He reminded the nation of what had happened just a short distance away - the burnings, and the bodies in the ashes. The capital, he said, was silent as it had never been before.

His Majesty called for a rebuilding "of mutual responsibility to each other so that never again will we see such violence, arson, looting, death - and such shame". The people had to stand together to rebuild trust and hope.

Then the King offered a seminal vision of a Kingdom reborn. ". . . Tongan culture, Tongan traditions, Tongan strength, Tongan singing, Tongan voices, Tongan prayer and Tongan dignity must find new expression and new vigour."

"Let us rebuild a new capital and a new Tonga."

It was time, he said, to make history that would be remembered with pride.

This was the opportunity and the hope King George found in the disaster that had befallen the town.

In the Tonga of his reign, there will be no turning back from modernization, renewal and democracy.

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