Tonga | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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Tonga is a monarchy consisting of 169 islands--only 36 of them inhabited--in the southwest Pacific. Its population is mainly Polynesian, with small Asian and European minorities. Known to European explorers as the Friendly Islands, the archipelago was unified as a kingdom under King George Tupou I in 1845 and became a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga achieved independence in 1970 and is a member of the Commonwealth. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has reigned since 1945. The king appointed his son, Prince Lavaka ata 'Ulukalala, as prime minister in 2000.

Since the early 1990s, the government has faced calls from ordinary Tongans, known locally as commoners, to hold direct elections for all of parliament's 30 seats and allow the body to select the cabinet. Currently, the majority of seats are held by nobles, who are chosen by their peers, and cabinet members, who are appointed by the king.

Led by commoner Akilisi Pohiva, Tonga's pro-democracy movement has won a majority of the nine directly elected seats reserved for commoners in four straight general elections since 1993. Most recently, pro-democracy candidates won seven seats in Tonga's March 7, 2002, elections, up from five in 1999. The movement, known as the Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM), generally avoids directly challenging the role and powers of the king.

Tonga depends on tourism, foreign aid, and remittances from Tongans working abroad, worth an estimated $40 million per year, to offset its large trade deficit. Like several other poor Pacific island nations that have turned to offshore finance to raise revenue, Tonga has been accused of facilitating money laundering by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The club of rich nations removed Tonga from its list of "noncooperative" states in 2001 after the government made administrative and legal changes to address the problem. In general, however, the government functions with relatively little transparency, and allegations of official corruption are common.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tongans cannot change their government through elections. The king wields broad powers that are subject to few democratic checks and balances. The king appoints the prime minister and appoints and heads the policy-making privy council, or cabinet. Commoners make up the vast majority of Tonga's population, but they elect only 9 of parliament's 30 seats. While the 9 representatives of the nobles sometimes team up in parliament with the commoner representatives to reject laws proposed by the cabinet, the nobles and the 12 cabinet ministers generally vote as a bloc to pass laws favored by the king. In addition to their political power, the king and Tonga's 33 hereditary nobles also hold a preeminent position in society through substantial landholdings.

Tonga's judiciary is independent, and citizens generally receive fair trials, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. The judiciary is based on English common law, and traditionally most senior judges have been foreigners. Law enforcement, however, is subject to some abuses. Police, working with prosecutors, allegedly at times postpone court dates repeatedly and file frivolous charges to intimidate government critics, the State Department report said.

Pro-democracy campaigner Pohiva and others in 2002 criticized the government's practice, first reported in the Matangi Tonga magazine, of sentencing several dozen teenage lawbreakers to unsupervised detention on an uninhabited island about one hour from the main island of Tongatapu. The magazine quoted a prison official as saying that the purpose was to separate the children from adult convicts.

Tonga's press carries some criticism of government actions and policies, although the government and private individuals recently have filed several defamation suits against media outlets over their reporting. Two journalists and two pro-democracy activists are facing trial on charges stemming from the publication of a letter claiming that the king had a secret bank account in 1991 containing some $350 million. In a positive development, the Supreme Court in December awarded Pohiva and two journalists nearly $26,000 in damages over their wrongful jailing for 30 days in 1996 on contempt charges.

Tonga's broadcast media are both public and private. The state-run Radio Tonga requires that any on-air references to religion relate to mainstream Christian practices. The policy prevents, for example, Baha'is from discussing on the air the tenets of their faith. Otherwise, religious freedom is generally respected in this predominantly Christian society. The Free Wesleyan Church has the most adherents.

Women generally play subordinate roles in this male-dominated society. They hold relatively few positions of influence in government, although some female commoners are prominent in business. Many Tongan women are abused in their homes, and anecdotal reports suggest that the problem is worsening, according to the U.S. State Department report. Wife beating is generally handled, if at all, within families or by village elders rather than through formal channels. Land inheritance laws discriminate against women, and women cannot own land.

Long-standing tensions between indigenous Tongans and Chinese immigrants apparently have worsened recently, as evidenced by a spate of attacks against Chinese-owned shops.

Tonga has no trade unions, although nurses and teachers have formed "associations" that lobby on some worker's issues but have no formal collective bargaining rights. While labor laws guarantee workers the right to join unions, the government has never set out procedures for forming unions. Most Tongans, in any case, are subsistence farmers.