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What Really Happened in Tonga

Specialist in Pacific media and journalism and their contexts, Dr Mark Hayes, is a very close Region watcher, as well as often a traveller Out There. After he travelled to Tonga in November, 2005, he posted his reflections and analysis of What's Going On in Tonga.

Last week's riots, which destroyed as much as 80% of the CBD of the Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa, were the major Regional story. But they were not entirely unexpected by folk who can read the signs and portents.

Dr Hayes does a weekly Pacific News Wrap - 'Mo oe mai i le Pasifika (For you, from the Pacific)' - on Mondays for the subscriber-only alert and digest service, The Daily Briefing. Here's the Tonga section of the Wrap from Monday, November 20, 2006, slightly edited and UpDated to late Monday.


Malo e Lelei

The biggest story out of the Region last week erupted on Thursday afternoon when pro-democracy activists rallied, and then mostly disaffected, and then often drunk, youths, all but trashed or burned much of the CBD of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa .

(Check this map for Nuku'alofa CBD . It's less than two square kms in total.)

Such an eruption should not have been entirely suprising given the steadily escalating pressure for serious and prompt governance and constitutional reform that's been building in the Kingdom for several years, coupled with austerity measures imposed on the country by the new government, often under pressure from agencies like the World Bank.

The scale and ferocity of the riot, and the deaths of eight people, apparently looters, caught up in it, was the really shocking part.

But revolutions are usually not neat, tidy, or conducted without at least some violence, more's the pity. Changing a traditional governance regime is like trying to turn an oil tanker, and this time, the glacial pace of change has put the tanker hard against the rocks, with toxic results.

As I described what I saw and interpreted was happening in Tonga when I went there in November, 2005, for the Region's major media industry bi-annual convention, Tonga's undergoing the same kind of revolution(s) we had in the West, except they're enduring their revolution - tradition, giving way to modernity, and rapidly to post-modernity - squeezed into less than a decade, with all the expected resistance from the local 'Ancien Regime' used to running the place for their, and their associate's, own benefit, focused mostly their main island of Tongatapu, and involving a population just over 110,000 mostly very religious (largely Weslyeans with some Catholics and SDAs) and socially, politically conservative people, steeped in Fa'aka Tonga (the Old Ways, the Tongan Way) as was vividly on display during the funeral rites for the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV on September 19, 2006.

The Western revolutions, overall, took several hundred years, usually involved civil and regional wars of terrifying ferocity, and we're still having our post-modern revolution (or revolutions, depending on how you understand post-modernity).

That's largely what's going on in Tonga on a far smaller scale, with escalating popular if mostly respectful discontent, such as last year's six week civil servant's strike , on which SBS Dateline also reported at the end of August, and, until late last week, without much serious violence.

I was also reminded by Joel Gibson of the SMH of some points he made in his feature back on September 23 , written after King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV's funeral (Mr Gibson sent me the original version of his feature):

"The key to change in Tonga was not to destroy the deeply ingrained, centuries-old feudal culture that was on spectacular display at Tuesday's state funeral, Sevele said. Once the ruler of the South Pacific, never conquered or colonised, remarkably stable for generations, and with a speed limit of 40 kmh and five-digit phone numbers, Tonga is different and must remain so. 'We have got to be careful that the pace, the nature and the extent of the changes are such that we can achieve them standing as we have always done, not running the risk of getting into trouble like some of the other countries in the world' [Prime Minister, economist Dr Fred Sevele told the SMH].

"Australia's high commissioner to Tonga, Colin Hill, sings from the same song sheet. 'Too rapid democratisation could lead to instability in Tonga, and I wonder whether the majority of Tongans really want rapid change anyway,' he told the Herald. 'We don't see much value in a big bang outcome, certainly not one that could lead to rioting in the streets ? but when you see the way things worked [at the funeral] it's hard to see that people would be prepared to mount a French Revolution style of thing here",'" High Commissioner Hill told the Herald.

Pacific Magazine's Peter Rees ran an up-beat feature in its November, 2006, edition, which ended: "So to the future. [Prime Minister (economics) Dr] Sevele says the country's economy is on the 'verge of takeoff,' citing tourism and fisheries as key sectors for growth in the coming years. The recent appointment of Tonga's first ever Minister for Tourism and an upward trend of visitors to the outer islands has added credence to Sevele's vision.

"National pride is also seen by Sevele as key to change. 'We have our shortcomings, we have our faults, we are having our difficulties, but we have no doubt our Tongan spirit, our traditional drive will once again turn this country around,'" Dr Sevele told Pacific Magazine.

But Matangi Tonga's Pesi Fonua's editorial published on November 9, 2006 , warned of serious tensions building over the slowness of political reform, and resentments at politicians granting themselves a pay rise while imposing more austerity on the people. Mr Fonua also warned the pro-democracy movement not to over-play their hand lest they provoke resentment or a backlash.

"To add more colour to the drama," Mr Fonua wrote on November 9, "the [People's Representatives] and their supporters re-presented a petition to the House today, demanding that their model for reform, which is for all members of parliament to be elected by the people, should be accepted by the House. These supporters said that they will hold daily rallies at Pangai Si'i outside Parliament trying to force the House to incorporate their model into the reform debate. This appears to be an unrealistic and an ill-timed demand but it definitely has achieved the objective of distracting public attention from the real issue - the money.

"Displaying an apparent immunity to the financial crisis, the House has reduced their working days from four to three, and this year they have had more days on recess than at work, and to top it off on October 16 they have given themselves a 60% salary rise, and oh yes, back-dated the increase for two sessions to July 2005," Mr Fonua wrote.

In retrospect, Mr Fonua was genuinely, and tragically, prophetic.

(Prophecy properly contains equal measures of forth-telling - you are abusing your power and hurting God's people, the poor - and fore-telling - keep doing that and disaster will devour you. Theological literacy is crucial to understanding a deeply religious place like Tonga.)

(Also declaring an interest, I've known Pesi and Mary Fonua for several years, and deeply admired their courage and professionalism in developing Matangi Tonga into a major On Line presence under sometimes fearsome pressure from earlier versions of the authoritarian, even feudal, Tongan government. Their winning of the 2005 Pacific Media Freedom Award was very amply deserved and universally lauded at last year's PINA Convention in Tonga.)

Meanwhile, Parliament rose last Thursday lunchtime without passing the political reforms, enraging pro-democracy supporters rallying across the road at Pangai Si'i.

The second-last story on Matangi Tonga before the riot erupted was from PacNews and reported: "For the first time since the United Nations began releasing its Human Development report, Tonga has displaced Samoa as the island with the highest rate of human development in the Pacific". Things seemed to be looking up for Tonga at last.

As that story was posted last Thursday, red, raw, anarchy was raging outside their building : "A rioting crowd has trashed property in central Nuku'alofa leaving the central supermarket Molisi Tonga in a tangled mess of broken glass and the streets smelling of spilled beer as looters joined rioters in a spree of destruction shortly after 3.30 pm today," Matangi Tonga then reported.

Mary and Pesi Fonua, and Lini Folau's, pictures accompanying their last story, are compelling, and were reproduced world-wide.

With the riot, and buildings burning, around her, Mary Fonua told Tv NZ news what was happening as central Nuku'alofa burned. (Flash media pop-up off the news story. It's harrowing listening.)

She later told ABC Radio's The World Today's Peter Cave that after posting their riot spread, they ran from their building, and had a computer stolen by looters. Matangi Tonga's offices were destroyed. The offices of another newspaper, Talaki, were also trashed, as ABC's PM reported on Friday evening (more below).

ABC TV News On Line also showed powerful vision of the riot and burning buildings . (On the top RH side of the page, Related Video Links.)

Tonga Now also reported on the eerie, frightening scene in Nuku'alofa:

"The night is black, but Nuku'alofa was black long before the sun decided to set on what has become a town gone wild. Standing before Taufa'ahau Road from Mala'e Kula crossroads at 9pm, one only encountered the blindingly white light of waves of fire falling onto the road from Tungi Arcade, Ramanlal Hotel, and other stores completely engulfed in flames. In the midst of it, silhouettes of teenagers and young children in marked contrast carried, with uncannily white smiles, boxes and sacks of goods from the stores. It was a scene Tongans had only witnessed on television via the LA riots, only this time, it was a tiny island, with a burning town, and a confused crowed [sic.] only too happy to stand in awe as they watched the flames engulf the entire business district of Nuku'alofa. There were no police personnel around. The looting continued and people scrambled by freely with sacks like a Christmas give-away bonanza come early.

"Parallel to this scene, crowds stood in stunned silence, immovable, watching embers deteriorate of what was once Narottam Store, a Chinese store opposite, following from earlier reports that Leiola Duty Free Shop and other businesses had met the same fate," Tonga Now reported on Friday night.

Tonga Now's pictures spread is also powerfully compelling.

The Tongan Broadcasting Commission also posted some pictures of the riot and of the start of the political reform rally earlier in November.

BBC News also has a small gallery of riot pictures .

ABC New Zealand correspondent, Peter Lewis', wrap on PM on Friday evening , compiled from Auckland, was an excellent summary of what happened, and more to the point, looked more closely at why.

And Emily Bourke's story on PM on friday evening , including reaction from Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in Hanoi, also gave a glimpse into the reaction from the Tongan diaspora, with Tongan-born Uniting Church Moderator of Victoria and Tasmania, Rev Jason Kioa . "I think it can't be resolved by force" Rev Kioa told PM. "I mean, it's very difficult, I can imagine, for the police and the army, Tongan army, to actually shoot the Tongan people because they are all kind of related to one another.

"To my opinion, it's matter of what they call in Tonga 'roll out the mat' and for people to sit down and have dialogue and talk in the Tongan way. But I hope that they won't use force to resolve it," Rev Kioa told PM on Friday evening.

The Uniting Church in Australia has close ties with the Free Wesleyans (sort-of like Methodists) in Tonga as confirmed by a Uniting Church statement on the death of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV: "The Uniting Church has a close affinity with the Royal family and the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga, with which it has had a long standing partnership. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was a lay preacher in the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga".

One of the key architects of the Tongan reforms, Dr Sitiveni Halapua , based at the East-West Centre in Hawa'ii, who was vice-chair of the National Parliamentary Committee on Reform, and became its chair after the tragic and senseless death of the most pro-reform Royal, Prince Tu'ipelehake , in a road accident in California in July, told RNZI late on Thursday : ""And the people were waiting and when the report was submitted, and just before it was completed, the presentation, discussion and answering questions from the members of the House, the government came up with its alternative road map and that is what triggered everything".

The background to last week's riot gets worse. RNZI reported last Friday: Tonga's King backed reform a month ago but move was kept under wraps . "The prime minister's advisor, Lopeti Senituli, says King George Tupou V accepted on October the 20th that 21 members of the legislature be elected by the people and the remaining nine elected from among the nobility," RNZI reported.

New Zealand-based Tongan political scientist, Dr Malakai Koloamatangi, told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat on Friday that the riots could provoke an anti-democratic backlash ( audio link from the pacbeat web site ).

By the weekend, after the Tongan Government declared a state of national emergency and deployed police and troops throughout Nuku'alofa, and at strategic points around Tongatapu, Australia and New Zealand agreed to send modest contingents of troops and police to bolster local uniform services, with the Papalagi assistance under New Zealand command out of sensitivity to Aotaeroa's Polynesian ties and greater influence than the local Superpower, and the large Tongan diaspora there. ABC News over the weekend reported on the departure of the first contingent of Australian and New Zealand police and troops to Tongatapu, the securing of Fua'amotu International Airport (about the size of a regional Australian airport and about 20 kilometers south-east of Nuku'alofa), and the evacuation of the first Papalagi (Tongan for white person, outsider) to New Zealand.

Here's the Sunday New Zealand Herald's story , with an accompanying pictures spread . Here's their early Monday afternoon, November 20, UpDate, and a new pictures spread.

Also at Sunday lunchtime, the ABC's Auckland correspondent, Peter Lewis reported that : "The leaders of Tonga's pro-democracy movement have condemned the intervention of Australian and New Zealand soldiers and police officers in the strife-torn Pacific island kingdom.... The movement says the intervention is further proof of the failure of Prime Minister Fred Sevele and his largely non-elected Government.

"Pro-democracy movement MP Akilisi Pohiva says the Government failed to heed the warning signs of frustration among the people of Tonga, and its security apparatus failed to ensure law and order when trouble started on the streets of Nuku'alofa.

"Mr Pohiva says the death and destruction caused during the riots is a regrettable part of the process of democratic change that is now sweeping the country.

"He and his supporters have called on the King to dissolve Parliament and appoint an interim administration comprising the heads of government departments pending fresh fully democratic elections," Mr Lewis on ABC News On Line reported.

One of the best informed Papalagi Tonga watchers is Fairfax New Zealand's Michael Field , who has the distinction of being banned, three times, from Tonga for his ascerbic, and accurate, reports on the Kingdom during the earlier years of the pro-democracy struggle (he's not averse to accurately outing the new King George V as gay, something everybody knows in Tonga but very few are prepared to mention in public. That's not me, or Mike Field, being homophobic. It's a statement of relevant fact when reporting on this very traditional, conservative, and deeply Protestant, religious country. In addition to probing the then Prince's many and varied business activities. He owns the Tongan brewery, and a large slice of Tonga's phone and power companies, though promised to divest himself of those interests.).

"Trouble has been brewing in the kingdom for years but love and respect for King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV kept it in check," Mr Field wrote on the Fairfax NZ Stuff.co.nz web site last Thursday.

"But two months ago he died, succeeded by his son who has made little secret of his contempt for ordinary Tongans while making a personal fortune by taking control of once state owned electricity and phone companies.

"King George's whereabouts is not known" [he was apparently in his palace] "but his extravagant residency, outside the capital, is likely to be well protected by the kingdom's Tonga Defence Force which is largely a palace guard.

"This is the latest in a series of South Pacific crises which can only represent diplomatic disaster for New Zealand trying to look after its own backyard," Mr Field wrote.

And what does all this tell us about the Regional Superpower's on-the-ground intelligence gathering as well? How often did the (former?) High Commissioner, Mr Colin Hill, or his staff, get out of Stockade Australia on Salote Road and have some 'ava with some well-placed locals, catching the local street talk, acutely attuning their antennae to the local vibes? According to Matangi Tonga, he was scheduled to leave Nuku'alofa the week before last.

It would be very interesting indeed to have Tongan language reports and comment translated, such as published on Taimi o' Tonga , one of the leading language news sources for the global Tongan diaspora.

Without any doubt, Tongans would have spent the weekend trying to repair some of the damage , particularly to the electricity and telephone systems on Tongatapu, and on Sunday attending church to deeply reflect upon, and repent for, the damage and loss of life last week. Overseas Tongans would remain stunned, would also be seeking answers and solace in church, be trying to contact relatives back home for assurance they're safe, and sending assistance as best can be done.

Later on Sunday, Prime Minister Dr Feleti Vaka'uta Sevele told rnzi that 80% of the businesses in downtown Nuku'alofa had been destroyed including a supermarket he owns, the work of 131 years destroyed. His daughter was among those evacuated to New Zealand Saturday and an evacuation flight arrived in Sydney on Sunday night.

And the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed some the first evacuees to arrive in Sydney.

Much, perhaps everything, depends on how all stakeholders variously respond to last week's events. If the government, nobility, and conservative interests seek to blame the destruction on the pro-democracy movement, and if Australia and New Zealand do the same, the seething resentments which erupted so terribly will not abate, but just go underground to fester and probably erupt in lesser scale, almost certainly opportunistic, criminal violence.

The targeting of many Chinese-owned or operated businesses, which sent as many as 150 Chinese to seek shelter in diplomatic compounds during and after the rioting, is another complicating factor, as the Fiji times reported on Sunday .

"Tongan police commissioner Sinilau Kolokihakaufisi told The Sunday Times yesterday the removal of Chinese retailers, and not democracy, was one of the reasons behind the looting and burning of the capital," the Sunday FT reported.

"'There was a struggle against the Chinese presence. They were not wanted and that's not democracy. Our investigations will include claims that there were other motives other than democracy behind the riot," he said. "This is getting us nowhere. We will find the criminal elements who have taken the law into their own hands," Commissioner Kolokihakaufisi told the Sunday FT.

By Monday lunchtime, commercial flights were returning to Fua'amotu International Airport, and on the first Air New Zealand flight were many Tongans returning to check on relatives and businesses, and the ABC's Peter Lewis, who gave a 'first impressions' interview with The World Today. Kathryn Roberts prepared a wrap for the World Today as well.

Pacific Beat also had a comprehensive wrap on Monday afternoon, November 20.

And on Monday afternoon, RNZI reported a worrying development:

"The President of Tonga's National Youth Congress, Drew Havea, believes that young people were incited into taking part in the riots.

"Mr Havea says some of the blame can be placed on the deportees from the U.S. who have been sent back to Tonga and brought with them an expertise in gang violence," RNZI reported.

The Fiji Times' Editorial last Saturday must be included in any briefing papers for the arriving Papalagi forces and essential, cautionary, reading for anybody else seeking to assign blame exclusively to the pro-democracy movement:

"No doubt, there will be claims the rioting and burning of Nuku'alofa is the work of pro-democracy agitators.

"But, as we have learnt, it is no use looking for whom to blame.

"Now is the time to do what is right, for Tonga, for ourselves, and for the region.

"We have so readily jumped to keep peace in the strangest of places that this might be a better time to extend a helping hand to a land that has kinship ties with us.

"But in doing that, we must refrain from telling Tongans what to do.

"We are dealing with our problems in our way and we must let them do it their way", the Fiji Times wisely said.

If wiser counsel like that prevails, the opportunistic, largely booze fueled, violence and destruction will be separated from the pro-democracy movement and its goals - largely agreed to by the King and government. The social and cultural dissonances and disconnects which caused the violence must be addressed using all the resources a deep and strong civil society such as in Tonga can provide. The severer effects of economic restructuring have to be included, and seriously addressed, as well.

We await more considered reflections and analysis on the Tongan revolution with anticipation. These may appear via Pacific Islands Report out of Dr Halapua's base, the East West Centre at the University of Hawai'i.

With Matangi Tonga's web site not being UpDated 'cos their offices were destroyed - and we fervently hope they get back On Line very soon - local English language news out of Tonga can be found on Tonga Now and the Tonga Broadcasting Commission . Radio Australia's Pacific Beat will also certainly have more detailed reports this week, as will Pacific Islands Report .

As a journalistic practice note (for which students lose marks in these kinds of exercises), there's a huge difference between 80% of Nuku'alofa being destroyed, as we heard on ABC TV Queensland News on Saturday evening, and 80%, or much of, or even some of, the CBD of Nuku'alofa being destroyed.

We have to also add we've been sadly amused listening to some announcers on the wireless and the television set - we only listen to and watch the ABC - tie their tongues in knots mispronnouncing 'Nuku'alofa'. It also shows some announcers and journalists don't listen to even their own stations before coming to work. Back in our day when labouring at 'Auntie', the cruel, merciless, and eternally vigilant ABC Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) would instantly hunt down miscreant mispronouncers and drag us out for a public 'mouth washout with soap' in the car park for even minor lapses, let alone calling the place 'Kiri-bati' On Air.

Mou faka'au a

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Matangi Tonga's back On Line

Matangi Tonga's Back On Line!


Check out what they've been doing since their offices were destroyed last Thursday night.

Thank you Dr Hayes

Dr Hayes: Thank you for this interesting summary and links on the troubles in Tonga. Queen Salote must be turning in her grave. I will not even attempt to pronounce those words or names!

So many of these island nations face an uncertain future and we risk being seen as the unwitting policemen of the whole region which is not a good role to have the play. A year ago I predicted our presence in the Solomons could go badly pear shaped and it is not looking too good of late. Our once benign presence has become a tolerated one, and no doubt will, if it has not already, ultimately become an unwelcome one. And the Japanese whalers are always there, waiting in the wings. No prizes for guessing how the Solomons will vote on that issue next time round.

Oh for the days when we could just go and enjoy the magic of the music of these island peoples, their hospitality, their benign climate and their beautiful beaches. But those days are fast disappearing in clouds of smoke. The road to full democracy and finding a place in the modern world will not be a smooth one.  And I cannot see how we can smooth that road for others, when we cannot even find a way to assist our own indigenous people to travel it. Our credentials as policemen may be quite good, but is that all we have to offer?

Speaking in tongas

Well, I can forgive the ABC for tying their tongues in knots mispronouncing 'Nuku'alofa' -- that glottal stop in the middle is a bit of a bugger -- but half of them don't even get 'Tonga' right!

No, it doesn't rhyme with 'longer and stronger'.  It rhymes with 'donger', as in 'dead dingo's donger'.

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