Tonga Wrestles With Change


Tonga is the latest Pacific nation to have lost its innocence.
In November 2006 the world’s smallest kingdom crossed the line into social chaos that others in the Pacific—Fiji and Solomon Islands—have been through of late.

Where other Pacific states have struggled with postcolonial reconstruction and reaching a democratic settlement, in Tonga’s case, it is a matter of struggling with post-monarchical reconstruction
and containing a new democratic impulse. But the question is always the same: how are tradition and obligation to past identity and heritage to be fitted into a democratic template with its demand for greater equality and human rights?

The Tongan royals and the government and family of Dr Fred Sevele didn’t deserve the mob rioting that
came too closely on the heels of the late king. Progress toward democracy was being made, but the impatience and fury with which it was unleashed in the capital, Nuku’alofa, signalled an unsettled temper. Tongans are now aware of the destructive force of frustration unleashed. But once out, the genie of democracy cannot be forced back into the bottle of tradition.

The symbolic calm that has characterised Tonga hitherto, along with the facade of complacent satisfaction with their royalty, have forever fractured and may yet break open into civil war. That
would be a sad outcome for a kingdom that has been wrapped in an almost fairytale illusion of time standing still.

In our world of 6.5 billion people, a mere 110,000 are Tongans identifiable by their culture, their customs, their island heritage and their system of governance.

Because they are so few, they are precious. And it is this minority status, this sense of extraordinary uniqueness in the face of a homogenising world, that renders the Tongan debate about change so critical.

A globalising tsunami for democracy and Westernisation has already affected many Tongans, especially those living in Australia, New Zealand, the US and UK. Some of them have become impatient with the “home front,” where time seems to have stood still and where prestige and status accrue continuously to the nobility.

As Tongans have fanned out over the globe in search of a life and standard of living not available to them back home, their values have changed and their discontent been redirected back upon
their islands and the monarchical system of governance.

The triple deaths in 2006 of Tongan royalty—a prince, princess and a king—spotlight and magnify the
people’s dilemmas as members of the planet’s minorities struggling to find stability and continuity in the face of globalisation’s potential for disastrous cultural desiccation.

It was an issue that vexed the recent King’s mother, Queen Salote, who reigned through the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Recognising the value of Western education, she expressed a hope that it would not overthrow the value of a specifically Tongan wisdom “necessary to maintain
Tongan society.”

She wrote, “It is not right to throw such wisdom away” because “there will be times when Tongan experience is needed for certain things in the country.

Her hope was that Tongan custom should not be “wiped out, but should be improved to fit with the times.”
To this end, her son King Taufa’ahau made education a priority—establishment and improvements to Tonga High School, Tonga College and Teachers Training College were all his initiatives.

He founded the Tonga Law Society and encouraged his Tongan subjects to think entrepreneurially about forming businesses and partnerships with outside interests.

The young prince cut a dashing figure in his Western suits, acquired cuisine and bad habits. Salote wrote of him at the time, “The pity of it is that he thinks and feels like a European.”

“There has to be another complete change,” she wrote, “to make him Tongan again,” and this “in order for him to carry out his true responsibilities.”

She wrote that it was important to “do it gradually, not hurriedly, for haste will lead to too many things being abandoned.” The result of a rush to change would, in her view, be that “the people will feel confused and will not know what is right.”

Worse, she said, “our work and our feelings will be confused too.”
Queen Salote ruled for 47 years until 1965. Taufa’ahau inherited the throne immediately and faced the difficult task of ruling his people in the most revolutionary and turbulent decades of history: the world was just coming to terms with race and gender equality; decolonisation across Africa, the Atlantic, Asia and the Pacific was the new shibboleth.

By the time the 1970s were in full swing, Marxism seemed triumphant in the developing world, and liberal theology dominant in Protestantism. Yet, to the King’s credit, Tongans retained their religion, their identity and their system of government.

But geophysical isolation and temporal marginalisation cannot hold modernity at bay forever. By the 1990s human rights and democracy made cracks in the Tongan facade apparent.

Pro-democracy forces have been presented as if an inevitability; some seem impatient in its rush to bury the present monarchy. But Tongan monarchs have died before and in circumstances that challenged the path of Tongan progress in the world. Yet Tonga has not fallen apart.

To be sure, change therefore comes at a cost. One cannot tinker with one aspect of tradition without upsetting every other structure or custom. An indigenous society is an interwoven and interlinked organic whole.

The task is to find out how to adjust one fiddlestick in the structure without bringing the entire architecture of identity crashing down. It would be a mistake to think that the subject of monarchy can be simply revised as though one is merely rearranging a timetable or a bunch of flowers is to underrate the power and permanence of ritual and Tongan resilience to change.

Tongans will continue to address change under the new King George, but it will be done in ways that are both meaningful and moderate.

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