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Scoop On Assignment: Tonga Faces Crossroad

State Of It: Tonga Faces Crossroad

By Selwyn Manning on Assignment in Tonga


Twenty four hours after rioters tore through Tonga's capital town looting and burning, leaving a sea of blazing buildings in their wake, New Zealand's Helen Clark said there were two futures on offer for the Pacific. "One is poverty and conflict; the other is peace and development." The comment accurately paints a crossroad for Tonga, for Solomon Islands, Fiji, for Melanesia in general. The comment acknowledges how accurate the United States' most recent handle for the Pacific is: The Arc of Uncertainty.

Helen Clark said peace and development could not flourish in circumstances such as those that have taken place here in Tonga. On the ground here in this grieving country, one couldn't agree more.

Tonga's King George V delivered a speech this morning at the closing of Parliament. It was a reconciliatory speech calling for all Tongans to come together to rebuild the nation and its capital from the riots of last week.

The speech was welcomed by people's representative MPs, but rejected by Pro Democracy leader, Clive Edwards, who said it was mere window dressing saying all the right things but lacking action.

But now, Parliament remains closed here until the end of May. That is too long for the people who hold the expectation, the demand, that democratic reform be imminent.

Certainly Tonga remains polarized, and further unrest is possible. As one government worker said to me last night: "The Tongan personality is hard to predict. Tongans are friendly, but beneath outer appearance builds a wave. Last week we saw a huge wave overwhelm Nuku'Alofa. I am sure a tsunami is approaching, unless the government here begins to change, begins to talk."

Scoop Image:
Tonga by Selwyn Manning On Thursday night (November 16 2006) a group of youths turned up at the Chinatown Hotel, threatening to destroy it. The proprietors urged them to take whatever they wished but pleaded that the four storey hotel be spared.

The establishment was looted and the Chinese owners fled.

One ex-pat kiwi told me she saw a quarry truck racing up and town the outer roads of Nuku'Alofa scouting out specific buildings that were to be destroyed.

Youth gang mobs followed behind.

While the buildings were looted fire-bombs were unloaded off the truck and handed to the mob. Then, the petrol-primed bombs were hurled inside.

All this happened on the parameter of Nuku'Alofa. Inside, the capital's central business district was already ablaze. A gathering of several thousand Tongans had left a park opposite the Parliament Buildings, angered that the prime minister and his constitutional monarchy government had not announced details of democratic reform, as had been the demand of many thousands of Tongans.

The gathering stormed into Nuku'Alofa's township. Within the crowd lurked youth gangs such as the 'Bush Boys' and others known as the 'Deportees'.

The large gathering stood by and watched as the mob, who had been provided alcohol to get them in a state of mind to carry out the attacks, stormed through the town – systematically targeting buildings owned by the Tongan prime minister, Fred Sevele, the new Tongan King and his nobles, the Tongan government treasury, and foreign owned businesses especially Asian-owned enterprises. The ANZ Bank was also targeted and destroyed.

Clearly, the attacks were planned well in advance. It was organized.

The blitz continued through the night and into Friday. Fearing for their lives Asian-Chinese retailers and hundreds of other people, Tongans included, fled the scene, seeking refuge at the New Zealand High Commission.

By Friday morning 80 percent of Nuku'Alofa was smoldering and fast turning to ash. A dark plume of black smoke rose from the rubble, and the people of Tonga have labeled the flashpoint: Black Thursday.

Officially six people lay dead. I understand that the dead people had stormed into a building but didn't realize that it was a storeroom that could only be opened from the outside. As they stormed into the room, the door shut behind them. The fires raged. They were trapped.

Unofficially, two other bodies are said to have been found. Although police told media here in Tonga that the bodies did not exist, pro-democracy leader, Clive Edwards, told me that the two deceased have been retrieved, identified, and returned to their families.

New Zealand and Australian police are assisting their Tongan counterparts with the criminal investigation. A missing persons list has been collated, but again, Tongan police will not confirm how many people remain missing.

Forensic and arson investigation experts have arrived here from New Zealand and Australia, as well as Police criminal intelligence analysts. In total, 20 New Zealand Police officers are now in Tonga. How long will they be here? Who knows. It is an enormous task – police say it will be at least two weeks but most likely will extend far beyond that.

Attention is now turning from the what and how, to why this blitz occurred, and where to from here.

The answers to why lie in the political arena – where the constitutional monarchy appears to have held onto power for too long, dominated who gets to rule in the Tongan Legislature, and ignored calls for democratic reform while the numbers of those fed-up with not having a voice swelled.

Clearly, the pro-democracy movement here in Tonga contains a number of factions. There are the moderates who seek reform while supporting a stable transition. There are those Tongans who have spent years abroad and have returned to the islands and say life should not be this way. And there are those who are more militant, extremists, who are inspired by how other countries have brought about constitutional change for force.

And then, there are the deportees, set apart from the general pro-democracy movement who have been sent back to Tonga after having been deported from prisons in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. They bring with them obviously experience in crime, but also the networks and the element to peddle drugs among Tonga's youth. The empty soulless pursuits of our western nations' underworld have washed ashore in Tonga, and within this element can be found those who were primed to commit the attacks.

It would appear, the majority of Tongans want democracy, most of those would subscribe to the moderate faction. But the events here in Tonga have them angry. A common sentiment is: "If this is what democracy delivers – then we do not want it."



Still to come:
  • Video documentary on the Tonga's Black Thursday
  • Video extended interview with Pro-Democracy leader, Clive Edwards.
  • Information courtesy of New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Tonga's political system is a constitutional monarchy where the King appoints the Cabinet. In March 2005, the late King of Tonga, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV permitted four additional ministers to be appointed from within the legislature. The four included two people's representatives and two nobles' representatives.

    The Tongan Legislative Assembly comprises of a cabinet of 16 ministers, nine nobles representatives chosen by 33 noble families, and nine representatives elected by universal suffrage by Tongans 21 years of age and over.

    Tonga's head of state is the new King George Tupou V, the eldest son of the late King.

    Tonga has been struggling to hold its economic position. GDP stands at T$361 million, with GDP per capita totalling T$2936 with GDP growth at 1.6%. It exports US$13.9 million per annum and imports US$82.9 million per year. Its main exports are fish, squash and vanilla, main imports are food, animals, beverages and tobacco.


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