This week, Kingdom of Tonga is getting ready for a lavish wedding. Seventh in line for the royal throne, Fanetupouvava’u Tuita, 29, will on Thursday marry Kiu Kaho, an army lieutenant whose father is a noble, Tu’ivakano, and is a cousin of the royal family. Tuita is the second daughter of controversial millionaire Princess Pilolevu Tuita who runs a Tongasat satellite communications company out of Hong Kong.
The Princess’s older brother is King George Tupou V. Center of discussion seems to be magnificent 18-karat engagement ring surrounded by diamonds, but majority of Tongan citizens are asking whether this is the way to spend money in the country, which is facing uncertainty and possible financial ruin.
Tonga is broke and confused. Last year in November, frustrated crowd predominately consisting of unemployed youngsters destroyed most of the downtown area of the capital – Nuku’alofa. At least six lives were lost in the flames of ransacked store. Some rioters were former members of California-based Polynesian gangs, deported from the United States. Others were allegedly fighting for democracy, against one of the most backward and oppressive feudal systems on earth. No matter what the background of last year’s violence, it seems that the opposition still hasn’t managed to come up with any coherent plan how to fight monarchy and feudalism.
Mr. Faleata who runs small travel-related business on Vava’u Islands (some 400 miles from the capital) doesn’t believe that the changes will arrive through peaceful means: “Entire system, but especially the nobility, are taking advantage of our people. When the rich decide to throw huge party or to arrange wedding, poor people have to supply them with food and gifts. What do the poor get in exchange? Nothing. It is a system of submission and exploitation. Last year in November we had no riots here in Vava’u. But almost all of our people are supporting pro-democracy movement. If no changes come soon, the entire country can experience violence on much larges scale than last year.”
At tiny airport of Vava’u Group, an agent of Airlines Tonga openly insults passengers, both locals and foreigners. She bumps confirmed passengers off the overbooked flight, calls the guard to take away those who dare to protest. No compensation is offered, no apology given. “She can do anything she wants”, one of the locals explains. “She is a daughter-in-law of People’s Representative from Vava’u. Nobody would dare to suggest that she should be fired.”
Back in Nuku’alofa, one of the members of “pro-democracy” movement, Mr. Hapu Mafi, explains his view: “This government doesn’t know what to do. The fact that it is now hiring so many foreign advisors shows that it has no idea how to solve the problems. Majority of our people support pro-democracy movement, but the PM and ministers are defending status quo.”
“The system, which we have now, was relevant in the past, but every society needs to evolve. In Tonga, we grew up in the system where it was hammered into our brains that the nobles will take care of the society. It worked fine in subsistent economy, but not in the one ruled by the market. These days, nobles do nothing; they just sit in their compounds and take advantage of majority of our people. We don’t want to fully dismantle monarchy, but even our King should be accountable to the people. The same with the budget: Tongan people are taxed and they are told that to pay taxes is their duty, but the government should be also accountable to the people and be transparent about how are the money is being spent.”
“Pro-democracy movement is also very dissatisfied with the religious leaders, who seem to be all too willing to extract funds from the families, no matter how poor their members are. Our people are suffering and hardship. Inflation rate is high. Standard of living of Tongans is declining. We don’t want to ignite the riots. We want to live peacefully. But there has to be some solution to the present problems. And the patience is running out.”
Mood on the streets of the capital Nuku’alofa is tense. Groups of unemployed young people are aimlessly gathering at the major intersections. Most of the downtown shops were leveled with the ground, and so was the only multi-screen cinema in the country.
Tourism collapsed almost entirely. Tongan National Center and National Museum are almost empty; miniscule expatriate community consisting mainly of foreign advisers and relief workers sparsely visits few surviving cafes.
Park surrounding War Memorial is now taken over by Tongan military, protecting one of the Royal palaces (despite the fact that King abandoned the ancient palace in the center of the city, moving to a lavish new California-style mansion at the outskirts). With lesser than 100 thousand inhabitants, Kingdom of Tonga has presently more than 700 soldiers, although it has no known international disputes. Another 800 will be hired this year. Minister of Education had been overheard joking that his country is definitely hiring more soldiers than teachers.
Indeed, the situation in Tonga is bleak. Unemployment is high and so is inflation. Essentially, country ceased to produce, depending instead for its survival on remittances and foreign aid. There are presently more Tongans living abroad than in the Kingdom itself (not unusual occurrence in Pacific). Social and educational indicators would be increasingly bleak, would the government officials not manipulate them. Poverty is omnipresent in the capital city and in the countryside.
The Economist visited Tonga in March 2007, giving it cautiously optimistic rating: “After a century of royal rule, in which the monarchy defended its power with claims that government by the masses would prove “corrupt”, political leaders are coming around to the view that more democracy is the best way to check mismanagement and improve Tongans’ living standards. Until recently, the cabinet was composed entirely of the king’s nominees, and only nine popularly elected representatives sat in the 30-member legislative assembly, alongside nine noble representatives and 12 members appointed by the king.
The royal government squandered money on misguided aviation and shipping ventures, and the bulk of the $56m it secured from selling passports was frittered away in poor investments by a visiting American rogue rather quaintly appointed by the king as his “court jester”. That the royal family also benefited from big private-sector investments-including ownership of the mobile-phone industry, cable television, a brewery and the electricity utility-increased public disquiet. The monarchy responded with a pragmatic reform programme that began before the accession of King George Tupou V to the throne in September 2006. Elected members of parliament were allowed to enter the cabinet, and for the first time in a century a “commoner”, Fred Sevele, became prime minister.”
But Fred Sevele is allegedly linked to the royal family by long-lasting friendship and by common financial interests. As far as majority of Tongan citizens are concerned, recently introduced reforms did not go far enough. Disappointment with local elites is growing and tension is threatening to explode, one again, without warning.
Some Tongans belonging to a small but influential intellectual group are disappointed with both the ruling class and so called pro-democracy movement. One of them is Ms. Kulala Unu, principal of Tonga High School, elite institution with 1.400 students, which educated both government officials as well as leaders of “pro-democracy movement”.
“I would like to see much more civic education in my country”, explained Ms. Kulala Unu. “I would like our people to understand what is democracy and what do they want to achieve. Unfortunately, what we say in November 2006 were just riots. And I hate to say it, but they were mostly ignited by the racism. 80% of the downtown area had been destroyed, but original targets were Chinese businesses. This country is receiving substantial help from People’s Republic of China. Even this school had been built with Chinese funds. Several Chinese lecturers were teaching here. But there is envy towards hard working Chinese immigrants. Right after the riots there was talk that several local businessmen paid young kids money to destroy Chinese shops.”
Whatever are the reasons, but one of the last feudal strongholds on earth is shaking, it’s walls crumbling. Tongan’s came to understand that the elites were hiding facts about their brutal exploitation behind the slogans like “tradition and culture”. If Tongans win their fight for genuine democracy, other oppressed countries in the region, including Samoa, may follow.
But first of all, members of Tongan opposition will have to decide what are their goals, what exactly are they fighting for. There is no doubt that Tongan elites are corrupt. There is no doubt that nobility had been exploiting great majority of Tongans for decades. But what kind of society does the opposition want to build? In Tonga, there is no talk about “social justice” and “equality”, yet. No discussion about secular state. But it often feels that these words are almost on the tip of the tongues of many Tongans and it is just a matter of time when they will be pronounced and implemented.
ANDRE VLTCHEK – novelist, filmmaker, playwright and journalist. Editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. He is presently living in Souteast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at [email protected]