Tongans wait for 'sun to fall' as revered king lies gravely ill

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The Independent Online

It will take a larger than life figure to replace Taufa'ahau Tupou IV - and not only because the King of Tonga, who is close to death in a New Zealand hospital, once weighed 33 stone.

King Tupou, who wields absolute power, has ruled his country since 1965, which makes him one of the world's longest reigning monarchs. His subjects crawl on hands and knees before him and Tongan officials say they are preparing for "what should happen if the Sun should fall".

The 88-year-old heads a flamboyant and eccentric royal family that has brought Tonga, a former British protectorate and member of the Commonwealth, a notoriety disproportionate to its size and influence.

Tonga consists of 170 islands, 36 inhabited, with most of the 100,000-strong population eking out a living from the sea or farming. The King's children, meanwhile, live in palaces with gold taps and dine on champagne and caviar - when not jetsetting.

The masses are at the bottom of a feudal system incorporating 33 titled nobles - descendants of cannibal warlords. Parliament is a rubber-stamp body that the King can dissolve at will.

While Tongans revere their King, they have little love for his oldest son, the Crown Prince Tupouto'a, or his daughter, Princess Pilolevu Tuita. A democratic reform movement has gained increasing support. In May last year, 10,000 people demonstrated in the capital, Nuku'alofa, demanding democracy. In August public servants began a six-week strike over pay.

King Tupou made international headlines in 1976 when he entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world's heaviest monarch. Tongans are among the world's most obese people. Nearly 20 per cent have diabetes.

The King is also a Wesleyan lay preacher, whose sermons instil the fear of God into his devoutly Christian subjects. But he has a fatal weakness for hare-brained projects. Most famously, he was made a fool of by Jesse Bogdonoff, a Californian investment specialist whom he appointed as his court jester. To Bogdonoff the King entrusted $26m (£13.8m) of public funds, which disappeared after being invested in a string of dubious ventures in the US.

The money came from a scheme dreamt up by the King to sell passports to Hong Kong residents anxious about the Chinese takeover. But there was interest further afield, with the late Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and his wife, Imelda, also becoming Tongan citizens. Other ideas did not get off the ground. One envisaged converting seawater into gas, another involved emptying a lagoon, concreting it over, and installing a depot for Iranian crude oil. And another idea was to generate power by burning 30 million used tyres imported from America.

One that did take off, with embarrassing consequences, was selling Tongan flags of convenience. In 2002 Israeli commandos intercepted a Tongan-flagged ship in the Red Sea. It was carrying 50 tons of weaponry destined for the Middle East.

The King's most likely successor is Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 58, a Sandhurst graduate with an Oxford degree, who once described Tongans as "squatters who would urinate in elevators". He has also advocated encouraging police to "thrash the habit" out of drug addicts.

The Prince controls Tonga's beer company, its mobile phone company, its electricity company, and its cable television company. He is also the main beneficiary of sales of Tonga's .to Internet domain suffix. He used to be Tonga's foreign minister, but gave it up for a business career.

Princess Pilolevu controls the country's only duty-free franchise and satellite company. She also owns an import business, a travel company, and Tonga's biggest insurance company.

The King's youngest son, Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, who resigned as prime minister earlier this year, has been at his bedside with Princess Pilolevu and King Tupou's wife. The Crown Prince has stayed in the capital, awaiting the news that will signal the start of the next phase of Tonga's royal saga.