The last king of Tonga?

Tongans have traditionally worshipped their kings. But the incumbent's subjects are increasingly disaffected – and revolution is in the air. Kathy Marks reports

The village chief, clad in a woven pandanus skirt, approached Prince Tungi on his knees and counted off the gifts that his people were offering: 10 pigs, one kava tree (used to make the local brew), 25 yams, a dozen hand-woven mats, 14 decorated tapa cloths. The prince nodded, his supplicant retreated, and the next chief prepared to abase himself.

That scene unfolded last weekend but ritual displays of servilityhave characterised life in the South Pacific's oldest – and last remaining – kingdom for hundreds of years. Tonga is still a feudal society where monarchs wield absolute power and everybody knows their place: royals at the top, below them the nobles, then the chiefs, and, at the bottom, the common people.

But times are beginning to change in the Polynesian nation of 171 islands. And when Prince Tungi's uncle, King Siaosi Tupou V, is formally crowned in an extravagant ceremony next week, the unthinkable could happen: a demonstration by pro- democracy campaigners.

The masses, who once gave the royals their unquestioning devotion, want to abolish a system whereby the king appoints a government for life and stacks parliament with his supporters. Dissent has been stirring for a while, but was held in check by popular affection for Siaosi (George) Tupou V's late father, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. He died two years ago, and his son does not inspire the same loyalty.

George Tupou V is an Oxford and Sandhurst graduate with an upper-crust English accent and only scant interest in Tonga's culture. A computer geek, he favours Savile Row suits, or a military uniform, complete with pith helmet, monocle and sword. He is driven around the main island, Tongatapu, in a black London taxi – which, he once explained, was "easier to get in and out of when you're wearing a sword".

His 109,000 subjects may be tolerant of such foibles but they are less forgiving of other sins, such as his use of state assets to fund his jet-set lifestyle; his lukewarm attitude to Tonga's twin religions, Christianity and rugby; his refusal to live in the Royal Palace; and, perhaps worst, his lack of a wife. "It's not normal, particularly for a king," complained a woman selling coconuts in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital.

As the coronation draws near, the mood on Nuku'alofa's streets, where pigs snuffle in the grass verges and every other building seems to be a church, is positively rebellious.

Akilisi Pohiva, a founder of the pro-democracy movement, has campaigned for change for two decades. In 2006, he finally extracted a commitment for the constitution to be amended, allowing popularly elected MPs to double their representation and the government to be chosen from parliamentary ranks. But the reforms will not be implemented until 2010 – and many "commoners" are impatient.

Mr Pohiva, a gaunt-faced, charismatic man who has twice been imprisoned by the royal family, believes that if there are further delays the consequences could be serious. "The people will rise," he warned.

"If [the King] wants to save his neck, if the royal family wants to remain in place, he must share his power or surrender it. No one wants a revolution but it's bound to happen if they continue to be stubborn. The people are sick of His Majesty milking the system for his ownpersonal benefit."

The coronation – the first in the Pacific for 40 years – has become a lightning rod for discontent. Firstly, there is the cost of it: T$5m (£1.6m), an immense sum in a country where many suffer economic hardship."It's all coming from our taxes," said

Tovale Misinale, who has a vegetable stall in Nuku'alofa's central market. "We're very poor. We want to take our children to the school, but the money just goes to the King."

As Crown Prince, the King – and his siblings – benefited from their father's largesse. "HRH", as he called himself then, was given monopoly control of state enterprises, including an airline and the national electricity provider. He also owned a telecom company, a brewer (Royal Beer) and rights to the .to internet domain. Every time someone switched on a light, sent an email or booked a domestic flight, HRH grew a little richer. Which was handy, since the thoroughbred horses, the private plane and the trips to Switzerland were expensive. Not to mention the various royal homes, including his villa, a hilltop Italianate mansion with marble pillars, gold taps, swimming pool and half-mile-long driveway that now seems to symbolise his remoteness.

The King used to have a playboy image but he hardly looks like one now. When his taxi drew up last week outside his second residence, he climbed out with difficulty. He suffers from gout and "just about every other disease under the sun", says a friend.

After his father's death, the King agreed to divest himself of his business interests. Pesi Fonua, editor of the Matangi Tonga website, hopes he has invested the profits wisely. "Because it will be us funding his home and lifestyle now, and I'm not sure we can afford it."

The King cuts a lonely figure now. He has few real friends, and sometimes the only company he keeps is his dogs. Mr Fonua believes his hobbies – toy soldiers, sailing motorised boats in his swimming pool – are "probably the only way he can keep sane". Although he has had girlfriends in the past, Tongans speculate about his sexuality.

But he will not be short of company at the coronation. An estimated 5,000 expatriate Tongans are flying home for the big day on 1 August. Visiting royals include Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito. Rumours that celebrities such as Elton John and Mick Jagger might attend are, sadly, unfounded.

Among the activities planned are traditional dancing, a military parade, a fireworks display, and the lighting of coconut-frond torches along the Nuku'alofa foreshore. Hundreds of pigs will be slaughtered.

There have been last-minute hitches. London tailors commissioned to make the regal robes reportedly had difficulty sourcing enough ermine. New seats for the church failed to arrive on time. According to one insider, "The King went berserk and commanded that they be got here by hook or by crook. So they were air-freighted in at a cost of T$3m (£815,000)."

The coronation was postponed because of riots in 2006, sparked by frustration at delays in the political reform process. Much of central Nuku'alofa was destroyed as businesses owned by the King and the Prime Minister, Feleti Sevele, were looted and burnt. Eight people died. The violence took peace-loving Tongans by surprise, and some saw it as an attempted coup. Mr Sevele said in an interview last week: "There were some elements who just wanted to take over government."

The King has his supporters, including Kalafi Moala, editor of the Times of Tonga. "As King, he is marvellous," he said. "When I visited, he made a cup of tea for us." But Clive Edwards, one of the popularly elected MPs, is scathing. He claims there is little enthusiasm for the coronation, and that the authorities are trying to drum up support in the villages.

Mr Fonua points out that reverence for the royals is a new phenomenon. "If you look at history, the King never lasted more than a year. If the people didn't like him, they chopped off his head."

Isolated, poor ... and proud

* Only 36 of the 171 South Pacific islands that make up Tonga are inhabited. The country, which was never formally colonised, was a British protectorate from 1900 until 1970, when it became independent and joined the Commonwealth.

* It is the last Polynesian monarchy and remains a highly traditional and Catholic society. King Siaosi Tupou V's father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, ruled for 41 years. At one stage he was also the heaviest monarch in the world, weighing 33 stone.

* A quarter of Tonga's population live below the poverty line. New Zealand gives the country around £4m in aid every year but the Tonga economy also relies on citizens who move to New Zealand and Australia and send money home.

* Tourism, which is Tonga's main source of income, is growing, but it still has a large unemployment problem, particularly among the younger generations.

* Tonga is an ideal site for genetic research into common diseases, because its population is virtually untouched by immigration.

News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher, full time, Medway school

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad Education urgently seek...

Science Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Key stage 3 and 4 Teacher requi...

RE Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

A Level Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?