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A commoner was named prime minister following the sudden resignation of Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata from the post in February, and King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died in September after a long illness, to be succeeded by Crown Prince Tupouto’a. Nobles were brought to public trial for criminal offenses for the first time during the year. The push for political reform continued, and violence erupted in the capital when the government proposed an alternative roadmap, resulting in a declaration of martial law that lasted through year’s end.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga gained independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth and is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy.
During the long reign of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, which began in 1945 and ended with his death in 2006, Tonga’s politics and economy were dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The first strong show of public support for democratic reform came with the 2002 parliamentary elections, when prodemocracy candidates won seven of the nine directly elected seats reserved for commoners. One influential democracy advocate within the royal family was the king’s nephew, Prince Tu’ipelehake. His proposal for a referendum to allow the popular election of all representatives won narrow approval in the parliament in 2004. Prodemocracy candidates again won the majority of commoners’ seats in the 2005 elections. The king reappointed Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata as prime minister and chose two “people’s representatives” to join the cabinet, marking the first time commoners had held cabinet posts. However, political reform was apparently moving too slowly for the people. Strikes by civil servants and teachers for higher pay in 2005 quickly turned into public marches for more comprehensive political reform. The protesters’ actions pushed the king to approve the formation of a special constitutional review committee in October 2005. Prince Tu’ipelehake chaired the special committee until he and his wife were killed in a July 2006 car accident in the U.S. city of San Francisco, where they were consulting with the overseas Tongan community.
Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata resigned as prime minister in February 2006. Although he gave no reason for his departure, he and his government had been severely criticized for losing millions of dollars in the failed Tonga Airline. To replace the prince, the king appointed Fred Sevele, a people’s representative and prodemocracy activist who had called for the prince’s resignation. Sevele’s appointment marked the first time a commoner had held the premiership. To improve government efficiency, Sevele proposed cuting the number of cabinet posts by half, privatizing many government enterprises, and reducing the number of government workers. By the middle of 2006, several hundred teachers and other public workers had accepted the government’s offer of early retirement.
In another sign that the authorities were acknowledging the public’s demand for political reform and an end to corruption, nobles were tried for criminal offenses for the first time in 2006. One case involved the speaker of parliament, who was found guilty in January of bribing customs officials to evade import taxes on a large shipment of alcohol. Another case involved a noble who was charged with rape and indecent assault. Although he was acquitted in July, the queen stripped him of his title, marking the first time a noble had lost his title since 1926.
The Privy Council enacted an additional reform in June, approving recognition of dual citizenship. The move was expected to boost the political influence of the overseas Tongan community. The country relies heavily on remittances from its citizens living abroad, including more than 30,000 in the United States. Despite its economic and political problems, Tonga ranked 55 out of 177 countries in the 2006 UN Human Development Index, relatively high for the region.
In September, the 88-year-old king died in New Zealand following a long illness. Crown Prince Tupouto’a—single, childless, and 58 years old—assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V. A major businessman educated in Europe and New Zealand, the new king was seen to have a more modern outlook and to be more accepting of political reform than his father. Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, the former prime minister and younger brother of the new king, was named the new crown prince.
In October, the National Committee for Political Reform submitted its report to the government, calling for a Parliament of 26 members with 17 members elected by the people and 9 by the country’s 33 nobles as well as a prime minister and cabinet chosen from among the 26 members of Parliament. The government proposed an alternative that would allow the king to retain his power to appoint the prime minister and cabinet and choose from persons outside the assembly. Pro-democracy activists rejected the alternative proposal and, on November 17, led a protest at what should have been the final session of Parliament in 2006.
Yet the government declared Parliament closed, sparking a public riot in the capital, in which many stores were burned and looted. Pro-democracy activists allegedly bused youths into the capital to target businesses owned by the royal family, their business partners, and the Chinese population, which now owns 70 percent of all businesses in Tonga. Public calls for restraint by the activists ended the riot, and Australia and New Zealand sent about 150 defense personnel and police at Prime Minister Sevele’s invitation. The king declared martial law, banning public processions and assemblies and gave special powers to the police and the military. In the end, seven alleged looters were killed in fires; 700 persons were arrested for arson, looting, and other crimes associated with the riot; and the total loss was estimated at $147 million.
The king and pro-democracy leaders met to bridge their differences, resulting in an agreement to increase the number of elected representatives to 21 in a 30-person parliament at the time of the next general elections in 2008, with the remaining 9 seats reserved for the nobles, and allowing for the prime minister and cabinet to be chosen from among Parliament’s 30 members. However, within days of the agreement, the king received a signed petition from nearly 2,000 citizens, including academics, professionals, and general members of the public, rejecting the accelerated pace of political reform sought by pro-democracy activists. A tense atmosphere enveloped the country through year’s end, and the king extended martial law in the capital to mid-January 2007.
Tonga is not an electoral democracy. The king, 33 hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners have long dominated politics and the economy through their majority in the unicameral Legislative Assembly and their substantial land holdings. The king selects the cabinet, which consists of 10 life appointees, two nobles drawn from the assembly, and two commoners drawn from the assembly. The four selected assembly members are replaced through by-elections. The king, cabinet, and two appointed governors—sitting as the Privy Council—make major policy decisions. The Legislative Assembly consists of nine popularly elected members, nine nobles elected by their peers, and the 14 cabinet members sitting ex-officio. The 18 elected legislators serve three-year terms. In an effort to bring an end to public riots in the capital in November, the king met with pro-democracy leaders and agreed to increase the number of elected representatives to 21 in a 30-person parliament in the next general election in 2008, with the remaining 9 seats being reserved for the nobles. Whether this agreement will hold remains uncertain, however; while the push to expand democratic representation has gained generally widespread public support, there is no clear consensus on how rapidly political reform should take place.
Pro-democracy activists who have participated in recent elections align themselves with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which serves more as an alliance among pro-democracy activists than as a political party. There are no formal political parties.
Corruption is a major source of public discontent with the government and a hindrance to economic growth. The royals, the nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for their personal benefit, from taking land and granting themselves monopoly licenses to securing government loans and guarantees. Tonga was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press, the government has a long history of suppressing criticism in the media. The Newspaper Act, the Media Operators Act, and a set of 2003 constitutional amendments had been used to silence the Tonga Times , a vocal critic of the government, and the opposition paper Ko e Kele’a . Foreign publications and journalists were also restricted. However, in October 2004, the Supreme Court ruled the two laws and the constitutional amendments void and invalid. In addition, the election of prodemocracy candidates to the parliament in 2005 and public pressure for accountability have encouraged more lively political news reporting. The government owns shares in several private media companies and runs the country’s television and radio stations. Internet diffusion is limited mainly by cost and technical access challenges.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in this predominantly Christian society. However, the Tongan Broadcasting Commission requires all references to religion on radio and television to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom, but academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.
Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected for groups not involved in politics and not critical of government policies, but those participating in protests and marches for political reform have faced government harassment. In November, the government imposed martial law to restore order and calm after initial political protests exploded into violent public riots throughout the capital. Special powers were allocated to the police and the military. Many civil society organizations are active in promoting education, public health, and children’s and women’s welfare.
The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated. The introduction of a new 15 percent consumption tax in April 2005 sparked Tonga’s first-ever strike by civil servants in July 2005. They were soon joined by teachers, who demanded an 80 percent salary increase. Their marches then turned into public protests for political reform and greater transparency in government.
The judiciary is generally fair, efficient, and independent of the king and the executive branch. Traditional elders in villages also exercise considerable authority and frequently adjudicate local disputes. Suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. Prisons are spartan, but there are no reports of prisoner abuse.
Relations between Tongans and Chinese immigrants have worsened in recent years, as evidenced by attacks against Chinese-owned shops, including their widespread destruction and looting in the November 2006 riots in the capital. Many Chinese entrepreneurs and their families left Tonga for safety.
Citizens enjoy freedom of travel, movement, and migration. Immigration laws were tightened after the illegal sale of Tongan passports (particularly to persons from China and Taiwan) became a sore point in relations with major aid donors.
Women enjoy equal access to education and health care and receive fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government posts, including cabinet positions and the majority of commissioned officer posts in the police. However, they often need support from the nobility to rise to positions of leadership. Women can lease, but not own, land. Domestic violence against women is not uncommon.