A party fit for a king – but not needy Tonga

It will be the party of the century when George Tupou V is crowned King of Tonga in August – and it will be his impoverished countrymen in the tiny South Pacific nation who will bear the expense.

The lavish ceremony, to be attended by foreign royals and celebrities including, reportedly, Sir Elton John, Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Sean Connery, will cost £1.6m – one-third of Tonga's annual aid budget. The regal robes, which are being tailored in London, will set the country back £230,000, while a gold sceptre similar to the Queen's is being cast, at a cost of £20,000.

The Tongan Prime Minister, Felete Sevele, defended the expense yesterday, saying that "enormous benefits" would flow to the country as a result of the coronation. "It will be a joyous celebration of culture, custom and kingship in the only Polynesian kingdom," he said.

One can only hope that ordinary Tongans share Mr Sevele's optimism. The coronation has been delayed for nearly two years because of concerns about the public reaction to the extravagance. Pro-democracy activists rioted in the capital, Nuku'alofa, five weeks after the former king, the long-reigning Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, died in September 1996. Sixty per cent of buildings in the city centre were destroyed, including businesses owned by George Tupou V.

Tonga, a former British protectorate and the last monarchy in the Pacific, consists of 170 islands, 36 of them inhabited, scattered between New Zealand and Hawaii. The royal family, a clutch of nobles and an elite caste enjoy a life of ostentatious wealth, while the 100,000-strong population ekes out a living from small farming plots or the sea.

The Tongan government has yet to release the guest list for the five days of festivities, which will culminate on 1 August. But it has confirmed that Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito will attend, along with Thailand's Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Britain will be represented by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Exclusive broadcasting rights have reportedly been given to the BBC.

According to New Zealand newspapers, the coronation will feature three balls: one for "very, very important people", one for "very important people", and one for everyone else. There will also be a fireworks display, a military parade, traditional dancing, a rugby match and an open-air concert.

While the king's late father was loved and revered by his subjects, George Tupou V, a 60-year-old multimillionaire bachelor, is less popular. A Sandhurst graduate with an Oxford degree, he is a flamboyant figure who dresses up in military uniforms and is driven around in a former London taxi. He once described Tongans as "squatters who would urinate in elevators if there was nothing to stop them".

The new king has promised to reform Tonga's almost feudal system of government, but many in the growing pro-democracy movement are frustrated by the slow pace of change. A state of emergency imposed after the riots, which caused £34m worth of damage, remains in place.

Reformers have gained seats in Tonga's parliament, but many MPs are directly appointed by the king, and the titled nobles – the descendants of 19th-century cannibal warlords – wield great influence. Mr Sevele said the coronation – which some sources say could cost twice the official figure – would be a milestone in the country's history.

"It is part of our life and who we are," he said. "There will be a renewal in our sense of nationhood and the togetherness which defines Tonga. The country's image will be taken to the world. This is a once in a lifetime occasion, a coronation for the people that will usher in a new era for Tonga."

Up to 5,000 visitors, including expatriate Tongans, are expected to flood in for the festivities. Mr Sevele predicted that their spending would inject twice the cost of the coronation into the economy. "This will bring benefits to all sectors of the community," he said.

Extra flights have been put on by the three airlines that serve Tonga, and every hotel, resort and guest house in the islands is already fully booked.

A brief history of Tonga

* Tonga, a group of 170 islands in the South Pacific with a population of 100,000, is the last Polynesian monarchy.A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

* Queen Salote Tupou III ruled Tonga from 1918 until her death in 1965. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, so the story goes, she arrived in an open carriage accompanied by a tiny man in frock coat and spats. Noel Coward, upon being asked who the man might be, famously responded: "That's her lunch."

* The late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV reigned for 41 years after succeeding Queen Salote, his mother. He once tipped the scales at 33 stone, entering the Guinness Book of Records in 1976 as the world's heaviest monarch.

* Taufa'ahau Tupou IV lost $26m of the country's wealth to a Californian conman, Jesse Bogdonoff, whom he appointed court jester.

* The new king's sister, Princess Pilolevu, was publicly humiliated when her letters to her secret lover, a rugby-playing commoner, found their way into public circulation.

* A former British protectorate, Tonga became fully independent in 1970, though it was never formally colonised.

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