Tonga crowns its King George V, and heralds new era of democracy

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The Independent Online

George Tupou V was crowned as the 23rd king of Tonga in Nuku'alofa, the capital, yesterday in an elaborate ceremony that many expect will usher in a new, more democratic era for the South Pacific nation.

The Christian ceremony was the culmination of almost a week of festivities that included roast pig feasts, tribal rites and British-style pomp. The coronation was the first in Tonga since 1967 when the new king's father, the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, ascended to the throne.

Days before his coronation, George V, 60, announced political reforms that will strip from the monarch most of the near-absolute powers his family has held for generations. He also said he had shed his stake in national businesses.

There have been growing demands for more democratic government in the almost feudal kingdom, where the royal family is revered but has also been caught up in money-losing scandals in recent years. The Prime Minister, Fred Sevele, told the 1,000 guests the coronation "marks the opening of a new era in our journey as a nation, an era of political and economic reform and increased prosperity".

The king rode in a black limousine to Centenary Church through streets covered by fine, hand-woven mats and lined with crowds. Buildings, lamp-posts and trees were festooned with garlands, balloons, streamers and banners. He sat on a golden throne in the church as the Archbishop of Polynesia, Jabez Bryce, proclaimed he had been "anointed, blessed and consecrated". The archbishop called on the king to rule "wisely, justly and truly".

A large gold crown was placed on the king's head and a 300-member choir sang hymns. The king, in white stockings and black shoes, left the church carrying a gold sceptre and wrapped in a heavy black cloak despite the tropical heat, with two boys in uniform carrying its train. A sumptuous luncheon followed, with traditional dancing, a fireworks display and an open-air royal charity concert. There were three coronation balls, one for guests listed as "VVIPs" (very, very important persons), one for "VIPs" and a third for regular guests.

On Thursday, the government defended the £1.25m price the impoverished nation will pay for the celebrations, saying the money spent by thousands of tourists the event attracted will easily cover the cost. More than 5,000 people, from official guests to Tongans living overseas, attended. The costs include £215,000 for royal robes made in London, £19,000 for the new sceptre (similar to that of Queen Elizabeth) and 1,000 new chairs embossed in gold lettering with the monogram GVT.

The royalty attending included Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito; Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand; New Zealand's Maori King Tuheitia and Britain's Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, representing the Queen. Heads of state and prime ministers of nine Pacific Island nations also attended.

Since George V's father died in 2006, he has been trying to shed his image as a rich eccentric playboy in elaborate uniforms, colonial-era pith helmets and monocles. Yesterday, he officially became the 23rd head of Tonga's Tu'i Kanokupolu line of chiefs, dating from the 17th century. The celebrations will continue next week, when George V tours the five outer island groups in the archipelago nation of 101,000 to join feasting, singing and dancing in villages.