If the Guinness Book of Records is anything to go by, the tiny South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga has two claims to fame. First, a tortoise given to the royal family by Captain Cook that lived for nearly two centuries. And second, the world’s heaviest monarch – King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.
Now 85 years old and somewhat slimmed on doctor’s orders, the King is still an imposing presence. His six-foot-three-inch frame is stooped over walking sticks but his hand, proffered to foreign guests, is like a massive ham. His ordinary subjects, known as ‘commoners’, are more likely to approach him on hands and knees.
Taufa’ahau ascended the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Sälote, in 1965. He has four children – three sons and a daughter. The eldest, Crown Prince Tupouto’a, is an unmarried playboy in his 50s who lives in a grand palace on the outskirts of the capital Nuku’alofa. He tootles around the island in a black, chauffeur-driven London taxi. But his real passions are computer games, toy soldiers and playing with radio-controlled boats in his private swimming pool. He prefers a lavish Western-style military uniform to conventional Polynesian dress and he is already planning his own coronation. Asked whether the Crown Prince will make a good king, his father replies: ‘Maybe.’
The King’s second son was disowned years ago for marrying against his father’s will. His youngest son, Lavaka, is the people’s favourite. He is Prime Minister at the King’s pleasure, having succeeded the King’s cousin, the King’s brother and before that, the King himself.
Like their dad, the Crown Prince and his sister, Princess Pilolevu, are both fabulously wealthy. They own Tongan telecommunications, electricity and insurance companies and a good chunk of the Kingdom’s real estate. The Princess, tall and elegant, lives in a palace opposite the Crown Prince’s, guarded by a pair of sculpted Bengal tigers.
Tonga is an archipelago of scattered islands about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. It has a population of 107,000 – another 100,000 Tongans live overseas, mostly in Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa and the US. The Kingdom relies heavily on foreign aid and remittances from citizens working abroad.
In 2000 the Crown Prince tried to sell the rights to his people’s’ genetic information – potentially worth millions – to Autogen, an Australian biotech company then run by the Aussie entrepreneur, Joseph (‘Diamond Joe’) Gutnick. The deal eventually fell through but only after a huge public outcry. Negotiations had taken place without any public debate or consultation.
This was not the first time the Royal Family had tried to line their own pockets. In the 1980s the King peddled Tongan passports, mostly to Asian customers. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were among the buyers. Unlike the King’s other get-rich-quick schemes this one was a roaring success. Nearly $26 million was raised, equal to more than half the Government’s annual budget. Adamant the money would not be ‘wasted’ on public works the King parked it offshore, where it eventually came to the attention of an enterprising US Buddhist named Jesse Bogdonoff. He persuaded the King to allow him to invest the passport profits and to appoint him as the Tongan Court’s first jester. The money all but disappeared and Bogdonoff was tried for fraud, negligence and conspiracy. The King has faced no censure for his part in this scheme – thanks mainly to ‘retrospective amendments’ to the constitution.
But selling passports may be just a start. His Majesty has also considered paving over a coral reef to make a helipad, converting sea water into gas by the power of prayer, building a space-tourism launching site and importing 30 million used car tyres for fuel. Another scheme to import four million litres of toxic waste for cash was halted when the nation’s doctors threatened to leave in protest.
The only kingdom in the Pacific, Tonga is currently facing a constitutional crisis. Its ruling family has repeatedly defied the constitution and the courts by suppressing the only independent Tongan-language newspaper. The bi-weekly Taimi ’o Tonga (Times of Tonga) is published in Auckland, New Zealand/Aotearoa, and sells 40,000 copies on the islands. Despite years of police harassment the Taimi still reports on the scandals of the royal family, an irritant for the King and his offspring. In February the Government issued a ban on the ‘import or possession’ of any part of the paper and the paper’s owner/editor Kalafi Moala was labelled a ‘foreigner’. (He is an expatriate with dual Tongan/US citizenship.)
Moala took the matter to the Tongan Supreme Court where the ban was declared unlawful. Press freedom is protected ‘forever’ by Tonga’s 1875 Constitution. Undeterred, the Privy Council, appointed by the King, issued another ban and declared it exempt from judicial review.
Lopeti Senituli, Director of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement, was charged with contempt of court for discussing the ban on television. ‘This goes beyond freedom of speech,’ says Senituli. ‘The whole issue goes to the very root of the structure of government in Tonga.’