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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
All eyes on the new Tongan king
By Nick Squires
BBC News, Tonga

The South Pacific nation of Tonga has a new, somewhat eccentric, king who is facing growing calls for democracy in one of the world's last semi-feudal kingdoms.

Fishing pigs (Picture by Nick Squires)
The foraging pigs have become a tourist attraction in Tonga
At first glance it looked like a hippopotamus.

But as I walked down the beach I could see that the dark, shiny blob ahead of me was in fact a pig.

A very large pig.

It was half-submerged in the sea, about 100 yards from the shore - one of the famous "fishing pigs" of Tongatapu.

They are an unlikely but popular tourist attraction for the modest number of foreign visitors who come to this deeply traditional corner of the South Pacific.

Domestic pigs in a string of villages along the coast of Tonga's main island have conquered their fear of the sea and learnt to forage at low tide for crabs, mussels and fish marooned in rock pools.

While piglets snuffle close to the beach, fully grown porkers wade out up to their waists against a backdrop of palm-fringed islands and a turquoise sea.

The porcine pioneers are descendants of animals introduced to Tonga by European explorers such as Captain Cook, whose landing in 1777 is commemorated by a marker just up the road.

Locals prize the razorbacks for their unusual-tasting meat, which is saltier than normal, as a result of their unorthodox diet.

"It's more expensive than ordinary pork," said Joe, my tour guide, "but people are willing to pay the extra money."

Elaborate funeral

Fishing pigs are by no means the only eccentricity in Tonga.

The catafalque bearing the casket of King Taufa'ahau Tupou
The capital came to a standstill as Tongans said goodbye to their king
The country is one of the world's last semi-feudal monarchies and its royal family positively revels in the unusual.

Last week tens of thousands of Tongans gathered in the sleepy capital, Nuku'alofa, for the funeral of King Taufa'ahau Tupou the IV, who died at the age of 88.

The king was given a funeral the likes of which may never be seen again.

It mixed Polynesian pageantry with British imperial pomp - Tonga, after all, was a British protectorate until 1970.

Hundreds of well-built Tongan men, dressed in traditional grass mats, carried an enormous wooden platform bearing the king's coffin.

In front of them marched soldiers dressed in white pith helmets and ceremonial uniforms.

Weighty man

The king was a larger than life figure - literally.

Taufa'ahau Tupou IV: One of the world's last absolute monarchs
The king was one of the world's last absolute monarchs
For many years he was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's heaviest monarch, at a hefty 31 stone.

He gained a reputation for suggesting hair-brained money-making schemes to earn Tonga foreign currency, from building a fish sausage factory to burning old tyres to create electricity.

In the 1980s he approved a scheme to sell Tongan passports to foreigners.

Unfortunately the millions of dollars paid into the national coffers were lost on dodgy investments by an American magnet salesman who managed to have himself appointed the world's only official court jester.

London taxi

But the old king's foibles are nothing compared with those of his eldest son and successor, King George Tupou V.

King George Tupou V
King Tupou V controls some of the country's main businesses
The 58-year-old bachelor is a staunch Anglophile, having been educated at Sandhurst military college and Oxford University.

He speaks with a posh English accent and arrived at the funeral in a black London taxi - his official car.

A keen collector of toy soldiers, he loves wearing medals and military uniforms and sometimes sports a monocle.

He lives in a large Italianate villa on a hill outside the capital, and seems to regard his subjects with a mixture of bemusement and disdain.

But the king is no fool.

In the past few years he has carved out a highly successful business empire, having taken over a wide range of national assets, from Tonga's only airline to a brewery and an electricity company.

That has caused great resentment amongst ordinary Tongans, who regard him as greedy and aloof.

It has also fuelled calls for democracy in Tonga.

Tenterhooks

Map of Tonga
The next year is likely to be crucial for this small island nation
At the moment two-thirds of MPs are hand-picked by the king and his nobles.

Anger at political stagnation and the high price of electricity sparked unprecedented demonstrations last year.

One of the royal holiday homes was even burned down.

"Ninety per cent of Tongans hate him," a taxi driver told me with relish.

That may be a little harsh, but certainly the country is now on tenterhooks, waiting to see what King George will do.

Earlier this month, he improved his image no end among ordinary Tongans by announcing that he will give up his business interests and concentrate instead on ruling the kingdom.

But he has not spelt out exactly what he thinks of the calls for democracy.

A big test will come next week, when parliament receives a report by a national committee for political reform.

Members spent nearly a year consulting the tens of thousands of Tongans living in the United States, Australia and New Zealand about modernising the constitution, which has not changed for 130 years.

If, as seems likely, the report recommends wide-ranging reform, then all eyes will be on King George.

Tongans' traditional reverence for the institution of monarchy, and lingering respect for the old king, means that he has a window in which to act.

But it may not stay open for very long.

The next year is likely to be crucial for this intriguing land of fishing pigs and pith-helmeted princes.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 28 September, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Tonga's late king laid to rest
19 Sep 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Obituary: Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
11 Sep 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Tongan King Tupou IV dies at 88
11 Sep 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Tonga gets first elected leader
13 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Tongan royals killed in car crash
07 Jul 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Tonga sues over jester's huge losses
11 Jun 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Tonga
19 Sep 06 |  Country profiles

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