The King of Tonga can do anything he pleases - except bring to fruition his many schemes to boost his subjects' well-being: oil, tourism, used tyres, aerobics... Some of his subjects, meanwhile, wish he would turn his attention to rejuvenating the body politic
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The first things the visitor notices along the Nuku'alofa waterfront are the shipwrecks, rusting hulks beached on the reef. They are sorrowful things to behold: condemned by the past, without a future. The shipwrecked, at least, are left with their stories.

There is, for example, Frank Barbutti, tending the bar and carrying in plates of food to guests at Papiloa's hotel. Regulars in a pub in Acton may recall Frank: slight build, barely 4ft tall, eyes like oysters, romantic or tragic depending on the hour. Frank's is a modern-day story of dashed hopes and piracy. According to him, two Scottish brothers drank and plundered his life-savings along the disaster-dogged journey between west London and the South Pacific island of Tonga 10 years ago. When he pitched up at Papiloa's, bedraggled and penniless, he joined the family of waifs who have made it their home. I have Frank to thank for lending me a tie to wear for my audience with King Taufa 'ahau Tupou IV.

The tie was the least of my problems. It is not an easy thing to get to see His Majesty these days, though, if the palace visitors' book is any indication, the King of Tonga was once a good deal more accessible. The first entry in the book, dated 1953, is signed simply "Elizabeth and Philip"; in their wake are various Royal Navy captains and visiting governor-generals. Then, following the succession of the present king, Tupou IV, in 1967, the entries begin to reflect a more open-door policy. There's the odd adventurer from Park Avenue, New York, a Texan, the "bailiff of Jersey". In the Seventies, the likes of Gulf Oil, BP and the Academy of Sciences from Moscow were welcomed, along with a Glaswegian couple on holiday, the London Girl Guides' Association, the Rugby Union of Twickenham and a "Mr and Mrs" from Beverly Hills. (By now, we imagine, the King was an able and entertaining conversationalist.) Then, in the Eighties, another kind of visitor - pirates and opportunists, whispering in the King's ear an idea for Tonga to sell passports, to sell the satellite space above the island kingdom: ideas, get-rich schemes, a new cycle of excitement followed by disappointment. By the Nineties, the palace doors had started to close.

Then, more recently, the King was back in the public eye: on television, mounting a fur-lined bicycle seat from a wooden box, cycling with leather ski goggles, with a number of guards jogging along behind. Aerobics had arrived in Tonga and the King was in crusade mode, leading his subjects on a get-fit regime. Never mind the growing pro-democracy tensions; never mind the body politic. Here was a ruler, his absolute power based on a constitution written by a British missionary in 1875 for his great-grandfather, leading his people by example. Tongans were to fight the flab.

Many months ago, I began to enquire after the possibility of an interview. Day after day, I telephoned the Palace Office. No one ever answered. I tried ringing at 10am every day, then at 3pm. Then I juggled the times, or phoned at random. It became a joke. "I'm just telephoning the palace ..." Then one day, three months later, someone picked up the phone and put me through to Ofa Tu'i' Onetoa, the Palace Secretary. I made my request and then waited - a cautious silence travelled down the line. At last Ofa reached a decision. He thought an audience with His Majesty might be possible.

So, on the appointed day, I arrived at the Palace in Nuku'alofa. The Palace is a beautiful, unpretentious, wooden dwelling overlooking the sea. A wraparound balcony rises to white lattice and a red iron roof. Visitors are shown to a small room off the Palace Office. On this day, the King's grand-daughter's French lesson is scribbled on a blackboard. Scattered around are photographs of Royals: one of Elizabeth and Philip attending feasts in 1953 with the Queen looking like a porcelain doll clutching a handbag; another of the King, aged 14, breaking Tonga's pole- vaulting record (his record still stands). Two soldiers provide an escort across the Palace grounds to the main entrance hall.

Previous visitors - notably Paul Theroux and Simon Winchester - have made much in their accounts of their audiences of the King's legendary size. This is hard to ignore - the man was until recently a generous 30 stone, and he needed two seats at St Paul's for Charles and Di's wedding - but dwelling on it has had the effect of turning him into some kind of sideshow freak. In fact, there is great deal more to this king. He is one of a kind - an absolute monarch who in many ways would be more at home in the 18th century. More than a ceremonial figure, he wields power on a scale unknown to British kings and queens for 300 years. He can create cabinet ministers for life, dissolve parliament and veto any legislation. He is not despotic by nature, but he is, unquestionably, a despot. He rules over a kingdom of 169 islands, and his wish is usually the command of 100,000 subjects. Little happens in Tonga without his agreement; most is his initiative. "New roads, schools, hotels - everything you see in Tonga began as the King's idea," says Ofa, the Palace Secretary. He forbears to mention the alternative energy programme, the ill-fated oil explorations or the campaign for national weight loss.

The King, with his absolute power and eccentric enthusiasms, brings to mind a benign Emperor of Lilliput - or would do, were it not for his size. The figure coming towards me - his arrival presaged by the clacking progress of his walking canes - is not the hulking figure older photos show, stuffed into the shiny suits and bow ties of a Gilbert & Sullivan monarch. But he is still a huge man, weighing around 20 stone. It is staggering to think of him mid-pole-vault.

What shall we talk about? I immediately realise that the obvious questions, about the growing consensus that Tonga's constitution needs to be brought into the 20th century, will have to be put on hold until we have established some kind of rapport. Better to start with a less challenging subject: his childhood. At what age did he first become aware that one day he would become King? "Soon as I could talk," he replies. The heavy eyelids drop over his eyes like a screen, accompanied by the silence that Theroux compared to "supreme indifference, as though he was a titanic spectator".

Our conversation meanders. He recalls his days in Sydney University's rowing club; he graduated in law, Tonga's first-ever university graduate. Finally, one of my questions hits home, making the screen lift and the eyes light up. I forget exactly what I asked, because his answer has nothing to do with it. Instead, he begins to tell me about some Russian tsarist furniture he has recently installed in his country palace at Fua'amotu. "I have a friend who does business in Russia. He happens to own a Russian plane. So he stacked all the seats to one side and loaded the plane with furniture and he and his wife flew it here to Tonga." My turn to say something: "They must have had a stopover in Vladivostock," I venture. He pauses to consider this. "Yes, Vladivostock would be the logical place." And with a glimmer of pride, he adds, "I believe it is the only Russian tsarist furniture in the South Pacific." Without any prompting, the King asks if I would like to see it. As we interrupt our interview for lunch, we arrange a time for Saturday morning out at his other palace at Fua'amotu. Questions about the constitution will have to wait.

The King's enthusiasm of the moment is the gym, so when we resume our conversation later in the day, it is at the Teufaiva Fitness Centre. He is wearing a white singlet, a colossal pair of shorts and Nike trainers. His "throne" for this audience is a specially constructed industrial chair. Opposite him is the German consul, Ralph Sanft, one of the King's confidantes and gym buddies. Another bench is pulled up for me to sit on. Ralph later explains that the chair was built in Germany and accompanied the King on his European tour. "Otherwise it would be too dangerous for His Majesty to sit in any chair."

Over the past few months, television crews from Europe, Japan and Australia have been through the gym, filming the King grimacing, straining. The King's spectacular weight loss has done more to put Tonga on the map than any number of State visits. It prompted a national dieting campaign which sought to reverse rising heart disease in a nation where obesity is commonplace. These days the King is exercising for Tonga's sake. With the earnestness of a new gym convert, he explains that he isn't into increasing his muscle bulk. "Otherwise I'd have to have new suits and shirts made and that'd be a waste of money."

The conversation touches down in Germany - the King of Tonga was the first leader to visit the reunited Germany - and then in Russia. The King was there briefly during the Khrushchev era. As he explains it, he was on his way to Delhi but missed the plane, and so wound up in Moscow. There is an explanation, but I don't quite catch it. The benches have been placed so that the three of us, the King, Ralph, and myself, are just on the edge of hearing range.

The King leans his good ear towards me, eyes popping expectantly.

"I said, 'Did Your Majesty enjoy Moscow?' "

"Yes, yes. The streets were enormous but with hardly any traffic. They had a special third lane running down the middle that only VIPs could drive along. We did not have to stop for traffic lights. Of course there was so little traffic to stop for." His eyes twinkle at the memory. The gym routine ends with an orange juice. And His Majesty, still in his white singlet, steps his weary limbs up a wooden step, placed on the roadside as a mounting-block, into his waiting van.

My friends at Papiloa's are thrilled by my account of this encounter. "You see, he must have liked you. He's invited you to Fua'amotu." The Palace Secretary, Ofa Tu'i, is less effusive. A procession of Queen Salote College graduates are marching through town and winding up at the Palace this Saturday morning. "I was hoping His Majesty would be there." A sage nod from Frank: "Hang on to the tie for time being."

Before the gym, there were other enthusiasms. Thirty years ago, after a visit to a London computer centre, he extolled the virtues of computers and spoke of Tonga taking a lead in their use. Another trip; another vision - this time for Tonga to take a lead in harnessing wave energy. A few years on and attention is diverted to a new idea to take all of Washington State's used tyres for an energy plant: Nuku'alofa, the used-tyre centre of the world.

Then, in the Seventies, crude oil began bubbling to the surface of the sea around the main island. Oil company executives and geologists swooped on Nuku'alofa. "Tonga may have been sitting on top of an oil bonanza for millions of years," His Majesty speculated. But the oil reserves did not amount to a commercially viable proposition. One after another the wells were plugged, and the oil men went home. "It's back to coconuts," gloated a headline in a paper in neighbouring Western Samoa. And, 25 years after Dallas came to Nuku'alofa, few buildings other than church spires and turrets rise above the swaying tops of the coconut trees. Meanwhile, down at the old wooden palace on the waterfront, the sea draws in and out over the reef while the King sits and reads, waiting for the world to return to Nuku'alofa.

Perhaps not since Canute has there been such a convincing demonstration of the practical limitations of absolute royal power. In theory, the King can make happen anything that he wants to happen. In practice, the very lack of limits to his power prevents him from achieving anything; the deference of his subjects cuts him off from the world. There are the King's visions, and then there is the reality - of villages sinking into charming decrepitude, suggesting shipwrecks from which lengths of timbers and bits of cloth have been salvaged. Sheets of rusting iron hang grimly on to roofs. Roads begin in tar and end in crushed coral. Palms, meanwhile, have been cleared to grow pumpkins, the cash crop which now provides 85 per cent of Tonga's export earnings. The pumpkins go to Japan.

Saturday morning finds us at Fua'amotu Palace, a more modest dwelling than the one in town. The King has dressed informally. "This is the furniture I was telling you about," he says with a sweep of his hand. There is something oddly Oriental about this Russian furniture. But, as the King points out, the furniture is not genuinely tsarist but factory-made, a replica of the tsarist period.

He asks if I happened to see his new Russian helicopters on my way past the airport. They will be useful for relief work in the future, he says. But he is more excited by their tourism potential. He speaks of flying fishermen to Minerva Reef, an atoll several hundred kilometres south of Tonga. He also speaks of draining the atoll and filling it with coral for the helicopters to land on. "The helicopters could fly surfers to the good breaks," he adds. The King was once said to enjoy surfing. Now, however, two years shy of 80, he laments: "I don't get much time for it these days. And, of course, now I would need a shorter surfboard."

The helicopters really belong, I learn, to a visionary tourism venture - more visionary than venture, thus far - involving a planned ice-skating rink, a golf course, a five-star hotel and an office tower for Nuku'alofa. The King leans forward. "You remember the businessman who flew in the Russian furniture? Well, he flew in the helicopters. A Chinese man."

In back issues of the Chronicle, Tonga's English language newspaper, Dr Sam Lim Wong is variously described as a Tongan resident, a Hong Kong- based businessman and Tonga's Consul in the Philippines. While there is something loopy about the schemes his name is linked with, here, at least, was a man willing to invest in Tonga. Hotels. Casinos. Ideas to lease islands to film producers. Fabulous stuff. A confident Dr Wong announced construction to begin on the King's birthday, 4 July, for a December completion date. This was in 1990.

Six years later it is still far from complete. The security man on the gate of the building site that was to have been a five-star hotel says that construction stopped in 1992. Once, more than 100 Chinese labourers were employed. Then the money ran out, and neighbouring villagers found the Chinese foraging for coconuts. Eventually, one by one, they returned to China.

There were also Russian helicopter crews, who stayed on after the helicopters arrived last year to teach locals how to maintain them. Things were proceeding smoothly. Then, last December, the salaries from Dr Wong stopped, leaving the Russians stranded. Most days they can be found swimming off the end of one of the town's wharves, or wandering back to their hotel with their snorkels and flippers. They are waiting for Dr Wong to show. Their families in Russia are waiting for money to be sent to them. Meanwhile there are assurances from Dr Wong's right-hand man, Dr James. The Chinese, the Russians, the Tongans - all stick respectfully to the honorific title of doctor. "Dr James says any day now..." They show me a letter they have written to the King explaining their problem and asking for his help. For the Russians it has become a joke to recite, over and over: "Any day now".

"The King has too many dreams. He's too idealistic," says Akilisi Pohiva, the leading spokesman for Tonga's Pro-Democracy Movement. Akilisi's obsessive demands for accountability and proper auditing of financial accounts both endear him to his supporters and infuriate opponents. "The fundamental problem is not His Majesty or his ministers. It is the system and the culture," he declares. Tongans are passengers on a journey, more often than not, of the King's choosing. "We are born to listen. We are not born to ask questions."

Akilisi and the King have never met. And one of Akilisi's frustrations is the ease with which foreigners, such as Dr Wong, breeze into the Palace at Nuku'alofa with their new idea, their brave schemes to save Tonga. "I have been trying for six years to see His Majesty," he says.

Later, at the Palace Office, Ofa is at his desk, looking troubled. Akilisi has telephoned him to explain that the Russians have not been paid for months. Akilisi has suggested that he tell the King. I pass on what I've heard - that Wong is due to fly in to Nuku'alofa the day after next. "Forget it. He won't be. He's always about to arrive. Tomorrow. Wednesday. Next Saturday." All this, he agrees, is going to be terribly depressing for the King to hear. "What I've done in cases like this is feed the information in a way that allows the King to find out for himself."

Every day, Ofa takes newspapers and letters across to the King. His strategy will be to slip the letter from the Russians asking for help in with His Majesty's mail, so the King will stumble on this unwelcome news on his own.

It was only yesterday that Ofa finally broke the news about the destitute Chinese. The King, he recalls, responded with a look of disbelief. "Afterwards, I was thinking, after telling him about the Chinese it would be too much to tell him about the Russians." The King is protected from disappointments as only the all-powerful can be. But reality is less accommodating, and so his aspirations to re-shape Tonga and its economy - so much less attainable than the simple objectives of the gym - are all too often frustrated.

In his white singlet and shorts the King lumbers across the Palace grounds. Yesterday was a "strength day"; today must be aerobics. Stepping. Walking. Cycling. He makes his way to the veranda of a small boathouse. This is our last encounter. I had thought of bringing the situation of the Russians to his attention myself. But it is actually more difficult than I'd thought. The King is such a nice fellow that you hate to disappoint or embarrass him. Instead, we talk of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and of the perennial royal dilemma: private inclination or public duty. "It is a service," he says, suddenly conveying an overwhelming impression of dignity despite the huge shorts. "A duty. It is not a matter of choice." We say goodbye. Someone else can disappoint the King - Ofa, for example.

Next morning, I hand Frank back his tie. He explains his plans for making it back to London. He only needs his fare. As soon as he arrives at Heathrow he plans to collapse and stay on the ground until an ambulance is sent for. "In hospital, you see, there are social workers who put you in touch with everything."

I'm thinking of Frank now as my plane out of Tonga dips over the rusting wrecks on the reef: of Frank sweating in his room. They took his fan out to give to some guests here for a conference on conflict resolution; his fridge went to some other delegates. I'm thinking of Frank crawling into another cold shower and climbing on to his bed to stare up at the lizards on his ceiling and plotting his return to London, his dramatic collapse in Heathrow, dreaming of finally imposing his will on an intractable world. Think of Frank's schemes, and you begin to understand the force behind many of the King's.

And the Russians? Any day now ... !