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SOMETHING wonderful about Tonga is the malau, a dullbrown bird that lives on the distant northern island of Niuafo’ou, and nowhere else in the world. It buries its eggs in a deep hole in the volcanic sands to incubate unattended. When they hatch, the chicks must dig their way out; as they pop up out of the ground it is an extraordinary sight.

Tonga is remarkable amongst Pacific islands in other ways. Settled for some 3,000 years, its people are unusually homogeneous culturally, religiously and linguistically. Never fully colonized, they have forged a proud, independent and stable oasis in a sometimes unstable region.

In the 19th century, a powerful chief from the central island group of Ha’apai saw which way the colonial winds were blowing. Converting to Christianity and securing himself some key British supporters, Taufa’ahau Tupou managed through bloody conquest to unite the 170 islands of the Polynesian archipelago under his rule. He established a parliamentary monarchy and renamed himself George I after the British King.

Monarchical power in Tonga is almost absolute, with the Tupou dynasty at the helm for the last 150 years. Most famous was the loved and revered Queen Salote (1918-65). Her son, Tupou IV, now aged 85, has ruled for 38 years. As King, he initiates and vetoes legislation, and appoints the Premier and all the ministers with nepotistic flair. Nobles dominate the modest, weatherboard parliament building, while only a third of MPs are democratically elected.

A small but determined prodemocracy and human rights movement has had some success at the polls. Stopping short of advocating abolition of the monarchy, it makes bold calls for political reform in the face of corruption and growing assaults on human rights.

Within a hybrid system of feudal capitalism, Tongans pay burdensome ‘tributes’ to their noble landlord, while most Tongans are poor and rely on the support of relatives abroad. The size of the diaspora, concentrated mainly in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia and the US, now equals if not exceeds the domestic population of some 106,000.

After remittances, tourism is Tonga’s second-biggest source of hard-currency earnings. Humpback whales are a holiday highlight, yet the Government has opposed the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Pacific. Tonga denounced nuclear testing in the region, but sought to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ which littered Iraq with depleted uranium. This tiny nation currently has troops stationed in the Solomon Islands, and Australia is paying for the expansion of the Tonga Defence Force.

As Tupou IV clings to life and the throne (defying regular rumours to the contrary), his three surviving children, each wealthy and powerful, enter middle age. Most observers predict political and economic change will come to the islands when the supercilious Crown Prince Tupouto’a assumes the throne, though opinion is divided as to whether it will be for the better or worse.

Questions about the future of Tonga may be overtaken by rising sea levels. Salination of the soil by this means threatens to make this largely subsistence and cash-crop-dependent society unsustainable long before the lower atolls are actually inundated. This is just one issue vital to the life of the nation that never gets an adequate airing. While local media are bought or gagged, debate must be concealed behind pandanus fans and confined to late-night circles drinking kava.

Fact file

Leader King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. Premier: Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka Ata.
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,410 (Fiji $2,160, NZ/Aotearoa $13,710).
Monetary unit Pa’anga or Tongan dollar.
Main exports squash, vanilla beans, bananas, coconut-oil products.
People 106,000. Population growth is low due to migration. People per square kilometre 139 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 16 per 1,000 live births (Fiji 17, NZ/Aotearoa 6). Health services are available free of charge but there is no social security.
Environment The main island of Tongatapu supports the majority of Tonga’s population and is almost completely denuded of native rainforest and mangroves. Humpback whales are chased aggressively by tourist boats. The moko lahi (Giant Tongan Skink) is presumed extinct and other plant and animal species are threatened. A national park has recently been declared on uninhabited portions of the island of ’Eua. Culture: Polynesian.
Religion Christian, including Free Wesleyan 44%, Catholic 16%, Mormon 12%, Free Church of Tonga 11%.
Language Tongan and English are both official languages.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution A highly stratified society, royalty and nobles tend to abuse their power for self-enrichment. 1991 **
Literacy Most Tongans are literate in Tongan, with English as a functional second language. Net primary school enrolment / attendance 92%. 1991 *****
Life expectancy 68 years (Fiji 70, New Zealand/Aotearoa 75). 1991 ****
Freedom There are no trade unions, political parties or genuine democracy. Freedom of expression and of the press are curtailed; there is no independent Tongan-language press. 1991 ***
Position of women Women hold a place of respect in traditional Tongan culture. Women enjoy certain equalities but are under-represented where it matters. Even the Protestant churches oppose birth control. Domestic violence is a hidden reality. 1991 ***
Sexual minorities Homosexuality: Illegal (for men, women not mentioned in law). Imprisonable for up to 10 years. Transgender: Male to female transvestism is common, and even traditional. But the legal situation for transgender people is unclear.
New Internationalist assessment Those born to rule have an associated sense of entitlement, and rule accordingly. Tonga finally joined the UN in 1999, but has shown little interest in the human rights commitments expected of members. Tonga lacks the independent institutions and vigorous civil society necessary to counter-balance the concentration of power, protect human rights and tackle official corruption. On the contrary, outright assaults on constitutional rights and freedoms have increased sharply. In October 2003, thousands marched on Parliament in response.

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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