The not-so-friendly isles

by Michael Field

Amid royal wrangling and corruption, can the elections bring any hope of democratic freedom for the Tongan people?

Tongans go to the polls this month following a bruising election campaign to produce what will almost certainly be another ineffectual Legislative Assembly. 

Power that matters in Tonga rests with a bachelor prince given to dressing up in various imperialist costumes. But Tongan people have recently been treated to the unique sight of royal enforcer Clive Edwards getting sacked from Cabinet in mysterious circumstances and then seeing him become an ardent democrat and election candidate. He now wants to rein in 56-year-old Crown Prince Tupouto’a and “his Indians” who have turned Tonga into a personal fiefdom.

On March 17, the commoners, who make up almost all Tonga’s 106,000 people, vote for nine of the 30 seats in the Legislative Assembly. That election is democratic, with 64 candidates, but King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV remains nominally in control. A group of 33 hereditary nobles (including Tupouto’a) elect another nine MPs. The King fills the other 12 seats with lifetime un-elected Cabinet appointees, including his youngest son, 46-year-old ’Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, who is Prime Minister.

The bewildered 86-year-old King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV mainly spends his time on his Epsom, Auckland, estate, leaving the kingdom to become a battleground between Tupouto’a – who calls himself HRH – and his sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, 53. 

Four years ago, Pilolevu was in charge and amassed a personal fortune by taking Tonga’s sky and calling it her own. Tonga’s sovereign rights to geo-stationary satellite orbits became the property of Tongasat, now Pilolevu’s family business. Such was her power that Tonga switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China to push Tongasat business. She called the diplomatic change God’s work and a chance for Tongans to use the new relationship to push the Lord’s word in China. “When China opens its doors to Christian evangelists, Tonga should be right there by the door,” she said at the time.

Pilolevu had her father bring in Edwards as Police Minister. She also had Cabinet Secretary Eseta Fusitu’a, who was married to then-Speaker Noble Fusitu’a, protect her interests. The King’s mental faculties are the subject of discrete debate – the government does not distribute his erratic speeches and they are not on the government website. Due to the King’s decline, Pilolevu lost power to HRH, who has given up hobbies such as filming lost Mongolian tribesmen and staging Agatha Christie murder mysteries in his tasteless Tongatapu palace. (With its Medici-style marble floors and gold taps, it seems to many obscene in a country where the average wage is around $7 a day.) 

With Joe and Soane Ramanlal, sons of an Indo-Fijian cobbler and a Tongan mother, HRH has a commercial empire that dominates the kingdom. His Shoreline company took over the state’s electricity generator and now sells power to the hapless citizens, he owns the Tonfon mobile phone company and a brewery called Royal Beer.

The most blatant operation, though, is his domestic airline that flies World War II-era DC3s. Last year, when the government-owned Royal Tongan Airlines collapsed, a private company started a domestic service using modern aircraft. HRH used his government powers to declare the need for a monopoly on domestic air services – and ensured his own company was the flyer.

In a rare event, Cabinet rebelled against that deal and three Cabinet ministers, including Edwards, were sacked. HRH and PM Lavaka Ata claimed that Edwards had been preparing to stage a coup. He laughed at the allegation – but discovered that it was not a joke.

Edwards says that HRH has the power and so does “anybody associated with him in business or socially. He calls the shots and people jump.”

While Edwards was a minister, he was seen as an opponent of democracy. “I was labelled as a defender of the royal system,” he says, “but I am not certain how this started. What I did was in accordance with my oath that I would uphold the constitution and the laws of this country.”

Philosopher and pro-democracy advocate Futa Helu, founder of the tertiary ’Atenisi Institute, says that only Edwards stands between HRH and a greater concentration of power. “I have seen him and the Crown Prince confronting each other. The Crown Prince is the big businessman of Tonga. His lieutenants, the Ramanlals, command huge incomes and power.”

Helu describes Edwards as a mercurial character and not to be politically trusted, but says he was best placed to counter the royal children and their grasping for wealth. “If he fails in the election, the Crown Prince and his Indians will extend their power and will continue to torture the Tongan populace.”

Veteran commoner MP ’Akilisi Pohiva agrees that Tupouto’a has become much more powerful. “At the same time, he is losing power; most people in Tonga do not respect him … For me, the system is now falling apart and no one is going to save it. The system is destroying itself.”

Civil rights advocate and election candidate Lopeti Senituli says that court decisions last year made it clear that power in Tonga resided in the constitution that the King had to obey. But Tupouto’a had turned it on its head.

“According to the constitution, HRH has no powers at all except when he gets to play Prince Regent when [the King] is overseas,” Senituli says. “So, to have been able to acquire public assets and to build commercial clout based on ‘status’ alone says a hell of a lot about how everyone in the country is scared of standing up to HRH.”

He describes the “worst-case scenario … where the source of political power and electrical power are both traced to the Royal Palace”.

This year, in a modest concession to calls for democracy, the King, by “grace and favour”, will appoint two commoner MPs and two Noble MPs to an expanded Cabinet. Pohiva, as a 20-year veteran in the House, could expect to get one of the positions, but Senituli says acceptance of the concept was far from guaranteed. Meetings after the elections would decide whether the new system was open and accountable.

He agrees that the obvious hitch is that, under the proposed system, whatever the King gives, the King could then take away.

Pohiva says that Edwards stands little chance of winning a seat and believes his movement’s candidates will take all nine seats, up from the seven currently.

Although the election campaign has run in a traditional fashion, the Matangi Tonga magazine website has played a role, with HRH insulting Edwards online. In a case of the pot calling the kettle off-white, HRH said of Edwards: “Floundering about like a beached whale looking for someone to blame for his public disgrace instead of glancing in the mirror is, after all, and provided he can tell the difference any more, degrading.”

It offered an insight into royal thinking in a country where the elite address commoners as “kainanga ‘o e fonua” or “dirt eater” and “me’avale” or “ignorant thing”. 

These days, HRH even calls them “customers” in a marketplace over which he has a stranglehold. 


Clive Edwards strongly resents being labelled the Kingdom of Tonga’s “hangman”. It was not part of the job description when he was Minister of Police. 

Now running for Parliament, he says that the Cabinet post had “no respons-ibility or function as a hangman”.

Tonga retains the mandatory death penalty, but it was last carried out on September 7, 1982, at Hu’atolitoli Prison, where brothers Livingi and Haloti Sole and friend Fili ’Esau went to the gallows. Two prison officers carried out a hanging each, with then-Police Minister Noble ’Akau’ola doing the third.

“On that occasion ’Akau’ola took over the hanging because of some reluctance on the part of the official hangman to perform his job,” Edwards said. 

“According to the minister, he had to demonstrate to the prison officers that if it is good enough for him to do the hanging, then anyone else can do that function when required to do so by law.” 

Edwards never had to deal with the issue, as every murder charge that went before the courts while he was minister ended up with a manslaughter conviction.

’Akau’ola went to his grave unconcerned over his hangman role and previously in Parliament had warned the then small democracy movement that some MPs had “only a few little steps before the rope is stretched over Mo’ounga Kula, the execution mound”.

The execution of the brothers had other consequences. Bishop Patelisio Finau, head of the Catholic Church in Tonga, gave the men last rites. 

“Tonga is called the Friendly Isles, but it disappeared for me then, and it could again,” Finau said.

He went on to become one of the founders of the kingdom’s democracy movement.


An exiled Tongan academic tells of the time he took his mother to her first big-screen movie – Star Wars. After sitting through Luke Skywalker and the exploding Death Star, he asked her what she thought.

“It’s just like Tonga. We must protect the Princess,” she declared.

It will take more than the Force to save the Tongan Royal Family from its biggest enemy: a rapidly diminishing gene pool.

Eighty-six-year-old King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV and Queen Halaevalu Mata’aho produced three sons and a daughter. From them have come seven grandchildren, but Crown Prince Tupouto’a, 56, a gout-ridden parody out of a P G Wodehouse novel, has no heir.

With no contribution from him, the Royal Family currently runs to nine marriageable single women and seven single men, and custom requires they marry other royals. The usual source of spouses, the “tama a aiga” or paramount families of Samoa, or Fiji’s Lau Islanders, are less than interested in hitching up with a Tongan royal these days. One prominent Samoan blue blood was apoplectic at gossip that she would save a Tongan royal male. 

Alleged royal homosexuality is hotly debated in the Tongan media and claims made on live television and from pulpits suggest that the kingdom’s libel laws are slack.

Futa Helu of the ’Atenisi Institute says that the Royal Family is too small to sustain itself and their lifestyle is causing offence to many of the traditional leaders. “On top of that, many highly placed Tongan chiefs believe there are too many gays around.”

He says that Fiji’s paramount chief, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (Taufa’ahau’s second cousin), had told the King “that the royal children get married as soon as they reach marriageable age so as to avoid being gay”.

Matangi Tonga publisher Pesi Fonua recently wrote that keeping the blood blue was harder because of the shrinking number of spouses available. “Traditionally, the high rank, or the ’Eikiness, of the heir to the Tongan throne of the Tu’i Kanokupolu dynasty was maintained by marrying members of the Royal Family with the descendants of the earlier royal dynasties, the Tu’i Tonga and the Tu’i Ha’a Takalaua.”

But the 26 heirs to the Tongan throne are directly descended from Queen Salote. “Within the Royal Family, marriage traditionally elevates the rank of the offspring, but this is no longer possible, unless the current generation of young royals marry their cousins.”

Fonua said the only choice left was to “allow the royal children to marry outside their restricted royal blood group”.

All 16 singles need the King’s marriage approval, and violations will be punished.

In 1980, the King’s third child, Prince Fatafehi Tuku’aho, married his first love, Hawaiian Heimataura Anderson. The King stripped him of his royal titles. Five years later, Anderson died. The disgraced son returned to Tonga, became Noble Maatu, and was married off to a granddaughter of Samoa’s paramount chief and head of state Malietoa Tanumafili II. Maatu died last year.

In 1969, the 13th in line, 21-year-old Auckland University student Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu, without permission, married Tongan commoner Josh Liava’a, who went on to become an Auckland policeman. Mele was dragged back to Nuku’alofa and her marriage annulled. Mele’s youngest brother then renounced his rights to the royal throne and married a commoner.

Liava’a later had an affair with the King’s only daughter, multi-millionaire Princess Pilolevu, which ended in 1996. Her leaked love letters were widely distributed in elections six years ago.

When she finally spoke about them, it was in a threatening tone: “[The letters] have hurt my family, it hurt me, but it’s over. It has not been the sort of tidal wave that some people were hoping for … I have a tendency to believe in forgiveness and I have forgiven, but unfortunately I haven’t forgotten. I supposed that’s another step in my Christian ladder to achieve.”

In 2003, her daughter, the King’s oldest granddaughter and seventh in line to the throne, Princess Salote Lupepeu’u Tuita, 26, was married in a lavish ceremony to Mata’i’ulua Fusitu’a, son of the powerful head of Cabinet, Eseta Fusitu’a, and her eccentric husband, Noble Fusitu’a. He had been Speaker of Parliament, chairman of a Taiwanese group called the World Anti-Communist League and was known for wearing combat gear. Mata’i’ulua had run off to Fiji with a Tongan beauty queen, but his mother brought him back and staged a lavish ceremony that included flying in limousines from California.

German television’s coverage of the wedding, 1000 Piglets for the Princess, made by Auckland-based documentary maker Ulli Weissbach, revealed the extravagance down to the Royal Leg-Holders, children who sat on the ground and lifted her feet off the ground.

“It is decadent and I believe the instinct of the royal children is that the end is near,” Helu says. “Everything has deteriorated in Tonga, including the Royal Family. Once the King and the Crown Prince are out of the picture, Tonga will be finished. The Prime Minister, the young prince, has no background and no competence nor any capacity to hold the nation together.”



Royal Tongan Airlines The Royal Family organised what they thought were favourable rates on chartering a Boeing 757 from a fellow royal, the Sultan of Brunei. World aviation was awash in unused Boeing 757s, but RTA paid top dollar and then went broke. Cost to the kingdom: at least $12 million.

Flag of convenience Five years ago, a friendly man from Piraeus, Greece, Peli Papadopoulos, convinced Tonga to let him create a ship registry selling the Tongan flag out of Athens. To the acute embarrassment of Nuku’alofa, it turned out that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operation were moving ships around under this Tongan flag. Washington exploded. Cost to the kingdom: Tonga paid penance to an angry Washington by sending its palace guard off to Baghdad to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq.

Passport sales Tongan sold citizenships and passports to characters of questionable background – including exiled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda – and made around $56 million, which the King insisted stay in his Bank of America account rather than be brought into Tonga, because he feared the government would just spend it. 

The Court Jester The King appointed as court jester a Californian Buddhist priest cum Bank of America clerk Jesse Bogdonoff, and gave him the proceeds of passport sales (see above) to invest. He went into the morally dubious viatical industry, which involves paying out on life insurance for terminally ill people – in this case, AIDS patients – in the hope that they die sooner rather than later. They didn’t and Bogdonoff lost the lot. Cost to the kingdom: $37 million.

Water to Natural Gas On the King’s CV there is a listing for the hitherto unheard of “World Peace Prize-Harvetor’s Prize”. The bogus award was granted by some South Korean Christians who said they were going to spend billions in Tonga on the world’s first plant that could convert sea water into natural gas. It was never clear what the scam was, but the deal the Tongan Government signed mentioned storing nuclear waste on a Tongan island.

NZ Listener

March 19-25 2005 Vol 198 No 3384




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