Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Following revelations that a royally appointed "court jester," American businessman Jesse Bogdonoff, had swindled the kingdom out of $26 million held in the Tonga Trust Fund, two cabinet ministers were forced to resign in late September 2001. Shortly thereafter, the elderly king's health worsened, which led to a leadership crisis and struggle for power between two of his heirs. Several roads in the capital city were blocked off by armed palace guards in November.
Tonga is made up of 169 islands in the South Pacific, with a predominantly Polynesian population. It was unified as a kingdom under King George Tupou I in 1845. In 1970, Tonga became an independent member of the Commonwealth after 70 years of British influence. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has reigned since 1945. Tonga gained full membership in the United Nations in 1999. The king appointed his younger son, 41-year-old prince Lavaka 'Ulukalala Ata, as prime minister in January 2000.
The 30-seat parliament serves a three-year term and consists of 12 ministers from the privy council (cabinet), nine nobles selected by and from Tonga's 33 noble families, and nine People's Representatives (commoners) elected by universal suffrage. The government has not responded to the democratic opposition's call for holding direct elections for all 30 parliamentary seats and allowing the parliament, rather than the king, to select the privy council. However, the government has allowed a democratic party to participate in elections and hold political rallies. In August 1992, reform-oriented commoner representatives, led by Akilisi Pohiva, formed the pro-democracy movement and won six commoner seats in the 1993 elections. In 1994, the movement organized the People's Party (PP), Tonga's first political party. In the January 1996 elections, PP candidates took a majority of the commoner seats. The pro-democracy movement organized a convention to discuss a new, more democratic constitution (the current one has remained virtually unchanged since 1875) in January 1999. The government did not endorse the meeting but showed a more relaxed attitude by allowing non-Tongans to attend the meeting and government civil servants to participate in their personal capacity. In the March 1999 elections, pro-democracy candidates, from what had been renamed the Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM), won five of the popularly elected seats. Most candidates promised to support some degree of political change, although there has been no significant challenge thus far to the role and powers of the king. The next general election is scheduled for the first half of 2002.
The government has also been more receptive to the pro-democracy movement's call for greater transparency and accountability. In 1999, former Lands Minister Fakafanua stood trial for charges of bribery, misuse of public funds, abuse of power, and fraud. Prime Minister Lavaka began pushing for reforms of the government and civil service in early 2001, instituting a major cabinet reshuffle and ordering sweeping reviews of government structure and key areas of policy. In July, the government confirmed a plan to gradually reduce the size of the civil service. However, corruption and abuse of authority remained a problem. A senior customs officer was beaten and left for dead after he brought a smuggling scandal involving a prominent businessman to light.
The Tongan economy continued to struggle. Like many other Pacific Islands nations trying to create alternative economic development options, Tonga was implicated in money laundering activities and was blacklisted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In August 2001, however, Tonga was removed from the list after the government made administrative and legislative changes to address the problem. Tonga received military logistics aid worth nearly $170,000 from China after shifting diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China in 1999. In July 2001, annual discussions between Tonga and New Zealand led to the signing of a bilateral aid agreement, whereby Tonga would receive an allocation of $2.3 million.
Tongans do not have the means to democratically change their government. The 1875 constitution grants the king and hereditary nobles a perpetual majority in parliament with a total of 21 out of 30 seats. This allows legislation to be passed without the assent of the popularly elected People's Representatives, whose nine seats represent roughly 95 percent of the population. Nevertheless, the commoner representatives have managed, on occasion, to reject legislation when joined by some nobles. The king has broad executive powers, appoints the prime minister, and appoints and heads the privy council. The king and the nobility also hold a preeminent position in society through substantial land holdings.
Criticisms against the king, his family, and the government are not well tolerated. In 1985, Pohiva disclosed that assemblymen granted themselves pay raises, and has faced harassment since. In the early 1990s, he was fined for allegedly defaming the crown prince. In 1998, the supreme court acquitted Pohiva of criminal libel charges for a statement regarding the business dealings of the king's daughter; instead, he was found guilty of two defamation charges over comments about Police Minister Clive Edwards. In February, the deputy editor of a New Zealand--based Tongan newspaper was arrested following the publication of an article about Edwards, and was charged with criminal defamation. Michael Field, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, has been denied entry into Tonga since 1993, after writing about Tonga's pro-democracy movement and uncovering a government scheme to sell Tongan passports and citizenship to non-nationals.
The government weekly Tonga Chronicle carries some opposition views. There are several private newspapers, including the Times of Tonga, Kele'a, and an outspoken Roman Catholic Church newsletter. Political coverage on the Tonga Broadcast Commission's Radio Tonga favors the government, and the state owns the country's two television stations. Television Tonga, a new public television station, was officially launched in July 2000. At the beginning of 2001, the HRDM launched a lowkey campaign to secure licenses to operate radio and television stations in a bid to sway public opinion.
Religious freedom is respected in this predominantly Christian society. Long-standing ethnic tensions between Tongans and Chinese immigrants worsened throughout 2001, with numerous cases of racially motivated violence being reported. In November, the government announced a tightening of its immigration rules, including the introduction of a "skills test." As a result, roughly 600 foreigners, mainly Chinese, will be forced to leave the country when their work permits expire.
There are no significant restrictions on freedom of assembly. The 1964 Trade Union Act recognizes the right of workers to form independent unions. None has formed because most Tongans engage in subsistence agriculture. The king appoints all judges, and the lower levels of the judiciary are not independent. The supreme court is independent and uses expatriate judges.
Citizens are free to travel domestically and abroad. In July, the Tongan Nationality Act was amended so that children of Tongan women married to foreigners would be entitled to claim automatic Tongan citizenship. Women generally occupy a subordinate role in this male-dominated society. Few women participate in the formal labor force, they cannot own land or hold noble titles, and they are severely underrepresented in politics.