Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Saturday, 19 December 2009

Tonga's monarchy prepares to hand over power

The Kingdom of Tonga is on the threshold of historic political change, as its 150-year-old monarchy prepares to relinquish its power. John Pickford, who first visited the country 31 years ago, has been back to see how it is trying to keep its royal traditions while building a new democratic future.

Beach on Fafa Island in Tonga
This nation of 120,000 people scattered across 170 islands was the only bit of the Pacific never colonised

My strongest memory of Tonga in 1978 is of a dilapidated minibus on an unpaved road, swirling with dust on the way to the airport.

Suddenly the vehicle lurched into the ditch and stopped.

A black car, travelling fast with motorcycle outriders alongside, loomed into view.

My driver shouted, "It's the king!" and in that moment I saw George Tupou IV, looking every inch the monarch in the back of the royal limousine.

In 2009, Tonga has better roads and a new king: George Tupou V.

Like his father, he still pulls rank on the highway but luckily he is easy to recognise.

When not on ceremonial duties, the 61-year-old bachelor with a passion for uniforms drives a 1950s London taxi.

Tonga has been caricatured as a South Seas comic-opera state but the truth, as ever, is more interesting.

This nation of 120,000 people scattered across 170 islands was the only bit of the Pacific never colonised.


George Tupou I (founder of the present dynasty) unified the country, kept the imperialists at bay and, in 1875, introduced one of the most progressive constitutions of its time, the third oldest written constitution in the world.

King George Tupou V
King George Tupou V says he is committed to reform

But since my first visit, Tonga has been experiencing a difficult transition.

As one government minister put it to me: "You can't imagine what it means to shed the 19th Century."

In politics, this began 20 years ago with the pro-democracy movement. The veteran opposition MP, Akilisi Pohiva, was a founder member and the current Prime Minister, Feleti Seveli, was also actively involved.

Momentum was held back, though, by the conservatism of the old king, who reigned for 41 years until 2006.

Beyond politics, Tonga was not well placed to resist globalisation and its tiny capital, Nuku'alofa, is an extraordinary mix of tradition and modernity.

In one evening stroll along the waterfront, I passed wood carvers in their workshops, an all-female aerobics class, the imposing new Chinese embassy (the once equally imposing British High Commission closed three years ago) and a man waist-deep in the sea bleaching tapa cloth.

Making tapa from tree bark is a craft of ancient Polynesia that is alive in Tonga today.


The gap between privilege and poverty is perhaps the harshest legacy of the Tongan past.

Map of Tonga

Kalo and her family live in a three-room house without windows that is 10 minutes' walk from the king's flashy new palace.

Kalo's income as a cleaner and her husband's from a bakery (plus subsistence from their 13 pigs) support five children and her stepmother.

What is left goes to the next most important thing in most Tongans' lives - the church.

Kalo, a strong, phlegmatic 34-year-old with a twinkle in her eye, says she does want change, but she would like Tonga to keep its king.

You do hear angrier voices, like the young man who sold me some of his bone carvings and then talked politics.

He grimaced as he railed against the royal family's privileges, especially their freedom to travel.

"It would have been better if we'd been colonised, like Samoa," he said bitterly.


Two recent events have raised the political temperature.

On 16 November, 2006, a date now burned into national consciousness as "16/11", anger over a lack of progress towards democracy exploded into violence on the streets.

Photo of Princess Ashika on ocean floor taken by New Zealand navy - 18 August 2009
The sinking of a government-owned ferry shook public confidence

Seven people were killed and 60% of the capital's business district destroyed.

And the sinking, last August, of a recently purchased government ferry, the Princess Ashika, with the loss of 74 lives has further undermined public confidence.

The morning after the disaster, the king left for Scotland on his three-month annual holiday.

"Not a good idea, he should have cancelled that," Kalo said.

But the greatest opprobrium has been heaped on the government for - it is alleged - buying an unsafe ship.

It is against this background that the Constitutional Commission has recommended a historic shift of power from the monarchy to Parliament.

But Tonga will keep a few toes in the 19th Century.

The king remains head of state and nine of the 26 seats in the larger Parliament will be reserved for the country's hereditary nobles.

It has even been suggested that the first prime minister of the new era might come from this remnant of the ancient aristocracy, and there are people - including some veteran pro-democracy activists - who see this as a safe compromise.

Tongans are hopeful but apprehensive as the curtain comes down on their long 19th Century.

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