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Date: Thu, 16 Jan 97 18:56:10 CST
From: bghauk@berlin.infomatch.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Tonga Journalists Fight Royal Repression
Organization: InfoMatch Internet - Vancouver BC

Tonga Journalists Fight Royal Repression

By Terry Coggan, in the Militant
Vol. 61, no. 3 (January 20 1997)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -"There's a new wave of repression in Tonga that's trying to shut down all opposition," Taimi `o Tonga (Times of Tonga) editor Kalafi Moala told a December 13 Militant Labor Forum here. The government claimed to be acting to uphold Tonga's cultural traditions, Moala said, "But there's just no way things are going to remain the same."

In September, Moala, along with fellow journalist Filokalafi 'Akau'ola and Pro-Democracy Movement member of parliament 'Akilisi Pohiva, was jailed for 30 days after Taimi 'o Tonga published an impeachment motion against a government minister that Pohiva was going to present in parliament.

The jailing drew widespread protests from international media organizations and civil rights groups. Amnesty International called the three men "prisoners of conscience." A court in Tonga ordered that the three be released before the completion of the sentence.

The case was part of a pattern of harassment directed against pro-democracy campaigners. Moala told the forum audience that he has himself been hauled before the courts three times in the past three months, on charges ranging from contempt of court to holding two passports.

"I didn't set out to be a pro-democracy activist," he said. "All I wanted to do was to start a newspaper. Until then, all media was controlled by the government or the church. After three months, our circulation had passed that of the government's newspaper. Since then, the government has been doing everything possible to shut us down. When you function as a normal newspaper, you can't help but be persecuted."

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV rules over the Pacific Island nation's 104,000 people with near absolute power. Only nine of the 30-member parliament are popularly elected. The king and the holders of the country's 33 noble titles choose the rest among themselves. The king appoints the 12 cabinet ministers, all nobles, for life. He can dissolve parliament at will. In these circumstances, commented Moala, "It seems a joke for parliament to even conduct a vote."

Most of the nine "people's representatives" in parliament are aligned with the Pro-Democracy Movement (PDM), founded in 1986 to press for political change. PDM has drafted a new constitution that calls for all members of parliament to be elected, and for an end to the political privileges of the king and the nobles. There is still discussion among pro-democracy campaigners about the future political role, if any, of the king.

PDM has wide support in Tonga, according to Moala. "Every village has an action committee or a movement contact," he told the forum.

In an interview published in the November 6 Taimi 'o Tonga, PDM member of parliament Teisina Fuko said, "There will not be any progress economically, socially, or politically in this country until those in authority are elected by the people." Fuko has been charged with sedition and defamation.

An underdeveloped country

Like most small Pacific Island nations, Tonga is kept underdeveloped by the world imperialist system. There is little industry. A garment factory set up by New Zealand capitalists to take advantage of Tonga's low wages has closed. Until the 1960's or 70's, Moala explained, most Tongans were subsistence farmers on their own small plots of land, the distribution of which was controlled by the nobles.

Now most agricultural production is carried out for the market, by small farmers on their plots, or increasingly by larger producers who employ wage workers on farms of up to 100 or more, put together by leasing land from the nobles or other landowners.

The largest crop is squash, which earned T$15 million (T$1 = US$0.80) on export markets in 1995. The industry is in difficulties this year as Tongan growers are being forced to accept lower prices, especially on the Japanese market. Tourism brought in T$13 million in 1995, and fisheries exports T$6-7 million, but by far the biggest contribution to the national income, amounting to about T$50 million annually, comes from remittances from Tongans who have traveled overseas in search of work. The largest concentrations of Tongan immigrant workers are in Auckland and San Francisco. Moala told the forum audience that his family in Auckland regularly sends parcels of grocery items like tinned food, toilet paper, and soap powder to relatives in Tonga.

In an article in the September/October issue of the Tongan publication Kele'a ' Akilisi Pohiva asked "are these nobles carrying out their duties to the people? Are they living among the people in their estates or have the people been abandoned by some of the nobles and moved elsewhere to look for a living? Are they justly dividing the land among the people so that the people may find a living from the land, or are they using the land for themselves to seek their own individual wealth?"

Would-be capitalist entrepreneurs are generally supportive of democratic reforms, according to Moala, because of the stranglehold the king and the nobles maintain on business opportunities. "Several applications for duty-free licenses were recently turned down by the government," he said, "yet the government granted the King's daughter Princess Pilolevu the exclusive rights to import cigarettes, spirits, and other duty-free goods into the country." The Princess also holds 60 percent of Tongasat, a company that rents Tonga's orbital slots - its rights to satellite space - to international telecommunications companies. "Forbes magazine has put her personal wealth at $25 million," said Moala, "half the government's annual budget!"

Government corruption has been a particular target of the pro-democracy forces. Moala cited the relatively huge expenditure on unnecessary foreign travel by government ministers. The recent jailing of pro-democracy campaigners arose from their protests over one such junket.

Role of imperialism

The imperialist rulers of Australia and New Zealand have long regarded the islands of the Pacific, including Tonga, as their special sphere of influence. Three-quarters of Tonga's foreign trade is with Australia and New Zealand. Tonga's dependence on Canberra and Wellington is perpetuated through "aid," which amounts to a quarter of the government's annual budget. The Australian and New Zealand rulers are above all concerned to preserve the stability of the region, and to ensure the conditions for future exploitation. King Tupou cannot count on their unconditional support. An editorial headed "Slow Burn in Tonga" in the October 3 big-business daily New Zealand Herald warned, "It may take longer in Tonga than elsewhere but it is only a matter of time before the system is challenged. The King has the power to allow how peaceful that progress will be."

A questioner at the Militant Labor Forum asked Moala if he thought the Tongan people were intimidated by the recent government repression. "I don't think so," he replied, "rather it has made them more angry."

Terry Coggan is a member of the New Zealand Meatworkers Union in Auckland, New Zealand.

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