Political Crisis in Tonga

There has been rioting in the Kingdom of Tonga today as protesters impatient with the slow pace of political reform overturned cars and set fire to buildings in the center of Nukualofa. Hopes that a democratic system of government would be installed in Tonga were raised in September after King Siaosi Tupou V succeeded his late father on the throne. Currently, only nine of the 30 members of parliament are elected by the people. The other 21 – including the prime minister and his cabinet – are appointed by the king and the 33 nobles of the realm.

This undemocratic system dates back to 1875 when a neo-feudal form of government was institutionalized in Tonga on the advice of Protestant missionaries. King Siaosi's father, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, resisted any change during his long reign from 1967 until his death in September. Until becoming king, Siaosi was popularly known as the playboy prince who amassed a large fortune in banking, brewing, fishing, electricity, telecommunications, insurance, and real estate companies in Tonga. Though he has placed his business interests at arms length since becoming king, there is much popular resentment at the way royalty and nobility have used their connections to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people and the national treasury. In May 2005, 10,000 Tongans marched peacefully through the capital in support of democratic reforms.

Now the peaceful protests have turned violent. Prime Minister Fred Sevele is viewed as a key figure among those attempting to stall political reform, and his office and a family supermarket managed by Sevele's daughter were among the buildings torched. As occurred in Honiara, Solomon Islands, during anti-corruption rioting there in April 2006, Chinese-owned businesses were also targeted. The full extent of damage to central Nukualofa will become clear over the next few days. On September 11, 2006, I wrote here that how King Siaisi “handles the situation will determine whether the inevitable transition is peaceful or turbulent.” Unless real democratic reforms are implemented soon, today's rioting is only the beginning of a long period of disastrous instability in Tonga.

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