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Democracy Fans in Tonga See No Reason to Revel

South Pacific: Islands' 84-year-old king, revered by many, refuses to share power and stifles dissent.


NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga--King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV celebrated his 84th birthday Thursday with a military parade and a lavish feast, but without the gift that would make many Tongans happy--democracy.

The all-powerful king, who has ruled this small Polynesian nation since 1965, has refused to bow to the demands of democracy advocates and share power with an elected parliament.

Instead, critics say, royal family members have enriched themselves through special deals with the government, banking many millions of dollars overseas while most of the island nation's people live in poverty as subsistence farmers.

"He is the world's last absolute monarch," asserted Lopeti Senituli of the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement. "Tonga is the last of the dinosaurs. We hope the change can happen peacefully."

Tupou is revered by many of his people as a benevolent and kindly sovereign. But as Tonga's economic ties to the outside world have grown over the last decade, so has the pressure to share power.

"The royals and the nobles make up less than 1% of the population, but they control 99% of the resources," businesswoman Mel Deagan said as the king's parade went past her newly opened Internet cafe. "A lot of people say it's time for democracy."

Under Tonga's 127-year-old constitution, nine members of the country's 30-member parliament are elected by the public. Pro-democracy candidates have consistently won since the early 1990s, but they are regularly outvoted in parliament by the 21 members selected by the king and Tonga's handful of noble families.

Should the king ever need it, he has veto power over any act of parliament. He also appoints all Cabinet ministers. For prime minister, he chose the youngest of his three sons, Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata.

Defenders of the royal family say the country doesn't need to change its system because the king protects his people and has their best interests at heart.

"We have a very loving king, a Christian king and a king who is acceptable to his people," said Giulio Masasso Paunga, minister for labor, commerce, industries and tourism. "The most important thing the king has done for Tonga is maintain the kingdom as a peaceful country and protect the freedom of people here."

The government also has tried to muzzle democracy advocates. It has twice jailed the country's most prominent pro-democracy leader, parliament member Akilisi Pohiva, for 27 days. It has sued him for defamation more than two dozen times for speaking out against the monarchy.

Most recently, it has put him on trial for sedition for publishing a letter allegedly written by the king's private secretary referring to $350 million that the monarch held in overseas accounts. The royal family says the letter is phony.

Pohiva attends parliament sessions Monday through Friday mornings and goes to court each Friday afternoon for his trial. He figures the court proceedings will end sometime next year. He faces seven years in prison.

"The constitution includes freedom of press and freedom of speech, but that does not include discussing the royal family," said Pohiva, whose battle with the monarchy dates to 1985, when he was fired from his post as teacher for espousing his views.

Tonga lies south of the equator between New Zealand and Hawaii. Most of the country's 100,000 people survive on the crops they grow, such as cassava, taro and coconuts. But an even greater number of Tongans have moved overseas to find work. The money they send home to their families is the country's biggest source of foreign income.

The king's birthday is a major holiday and is celebrated with a week of festivities, including a beauty pageant, a cooking contest and a Bartender of the Year competition. Virtually the entire armed forces of 360 men took part in the parade.

Today, two high school football teams made up of Tongans living in California and Hawaii will play a game for the king.

Tongans tend to be big people, and the islanders have high rates of obesity and diabetes. Tupou was listed in the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records as the world's heaviest monarch at 462 pounds. More recently, he began dieting and exercising and is said to have shed 165 pounds.

Democracy advocates had hoped that the king would make a place for himself in Tonga's history books by bequeathing democracy to the kingdom as he reached old age.

Now their hopes rest with his heir, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, a well-read bachelor of 53 who at times has hinted privately to some that he might be open to change. Members of the royal family declined to be interviewed this week.

Any alteration in government is not likely to happen through violence. Although their ancestors were fierce warriors who once raided other South Pacific islands, today's Tongans are peaceful people. Time drifts by slowly here, and few are eager for rapid change.

Although Pohiva has been the country's top vote-getter in five elections since 1990, most people are cautious about speaking out about the monarchy. Students attending the king's parade said they had never learned about democracy and didn't know what the term meant.

"We have a Tongan democracy, and we are enjoying it," said Steven Wood, a teacher and Education Ministry official. "It is a little different from America. We still have our king, and we want him to be ruler for a very long time."

In April, democracy advocates called for a referendum on a proposal to shift the balance of power. All members of parliament would be elected, and the one who had majority support would become prime minister. At least seven of the 12 Cabinet members would have to be members of parliament.

"In this day and age, the one who has power should be accountable to the people," said elected parliament member Fred Sevele, a prominent Tonga businessman. "We just want more sharing of power."

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