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King Tupou V died in Hong Kong in March 2012. His brother, Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka Ata succeeded him, taking the title King Tupou VI. In one of his final acts before his death, King Tupou V withheld royal consent for a 2011 law that would have reduced penalties for unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition. Meanwhile, several police officers were charged with manslaughter in two separate cases during the year.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King Siaosi I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900, gaining independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth. King Tāufa‘āhau Tupou IV ruled from 1945 to 2006. His son, Crown Prince Tupouto‘a, assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V in 2006 and was officially crowned in 2008.
The monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners dominate politics and the economy. A public protest by prodemocracy activists in November 2006 escalated into rioting that destroyed the country’s central business district, and the government declared a state of emergency. King Tupou V entered into talks with activists, reaching an agreement in December 2009 to create a new 26-member parliament with 17 popularly elected representatives.
Parliamentary elections were held under the new government structure in November 2010. Prodemocracy candidates of the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI) won 12 of the 17 commoners’ seats. In December, the new parliament chose Lord Tu‘ivakano as prime minister. The state of emergency that had been in effect since 2006 was lifted in February 2011.
On March 18, 2012, King Tupou V died at the age of 63 while receiving medical treatment in Hong Kong. The king had no children, and his 53-year-old brother, Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, assumed the throne, taking the title King Tupou VI. The new king, who had previously been serving as Tonga’s High Commissioner to Australia, named his 27-year-old son, Prince ‘Ulukalala, as the new crown prince.
In one of his final official decisions before his death, King Tupou V in January vetoed the Arms and Ammunitions Act of 2011, which would have reduced the prison terms and fines for the unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition. The law was passed as three nobles in parliament, including house speaker Lord Lasike, faced charges for illegally possessing firearms and other crimes. In July, Lasike was found guilty and fined $283 and stripped of his seat in parliament; he was replaced by Lord Fakafanua. Court hearings for the other two nobles, Lord Tu’ilakepa and Lord Tu’iha’ateiho, were scheduled for January and February 2013, respectively. Meanwhile, in October, the parliament failed to adopt the same bill to reduce prison terms for illegal weapons possession after Lord Fakafanua joined opposition members to block its passage.
Tonga’s economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans living abroad. The global economic downturn has reduced tourist arrivals, overseas remittances, and returns from government investments. In addition to raising fees for government licenses and services, Tonga is seeking more economic assistance from China. In 2012, China funded reconstruction of the downtown central business district with a $70 million loan.
Tonga is an electoral democracy. The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 26 members, including 17 popularly elected representatives and 9 nobles elected by their peers; all members serve four-year terms. The king retains the power to appoint the chief justice, judges of the court of appeal, and the attorney general on the advice of the privy council. The privy council, whose members are appointed by the king, lost its power to pass legislation following changes to the government structure in 2010. Additionally, the Legislative Assembly—rather than the king—now selects the prime minister.
Prodemocracy candidates have typically aligned with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party. Several new parties were formed to compete in the 2010 general elections, including the DPFI, the Democratic Labor Party, the Sustainable Nation-Building Party, and the People’s Democratic Party.
Corruption is widespread, with royals, nobles, and their top associates allegedly having used state assets for personal benefit, and transparency and accountability are lacking. The government announced in 2012 that it would revive the Anti-Corruption Commission formed by King Tupou V in 2007, but which was never given the powers it needed to operate.
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Although commentaries critical of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those owned by the state or in which the state owns shares, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. In 2012, the government granted a broadcast license to a new community radio station that focuses on women’s issues. Funded by international donors and operated by volunteers, the station began broadcasting two days a week in February. In December, China Radio International, a 24-hour Chinese-government owned and operated FM radio station, began broadcasting in English and Chinese. Internet access is not restricted, and the number of users has increased despite high costs and lack of infrastructure.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government. In February 2012, the government mandated that Tongan be the only language taught at early education levels; the new rules add English to the curriculum in later grades, and exempt children whose mother tongue is not Tongan.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld. There has been a gradual decline in actions by the government and powerful elites to limit the creation or activities of nongovernmental organizations, including those that engage in work of a political nature. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.
The judiciary is generally independent, though a shortage of judges has created serious case backlogs. Traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes, and nobles have increasingly faced scrutiny in society and the courts. Five police officers and one civilian were charged with manslaughter after a New Zealand police officer of Tongan origin was fatally injured in August 2012 while in police custody; an inquiry was set for February 2013. In November 2012, three police officers were charged with manslaughter in the death of a 20-year-old after a fight; they were released on bail pending a court hearing scheduled for January 2013.
Prisons are basic, and are only lightly guarded, as violent crimes are rare.
Women enjoy equal access to education and hold several senior government jobs, though no women were elected in the 2010 elections. Women cannot own land, and domestic violence is common. The government announced in 2012 that it would work to end violence against women through various measures, including the ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; no concrete measures had been taken by year’s end.