The News From Nuku’alofa

Those of us who love a tiny Polynesian nation in the South Pacific are distressed by the reports out of Tonga of anti-royalist riots that have left at least six dead and destroyed the downtown of Nuku’alofa, the capital of the country.

The best pictures of the riots’ aftermath are on Matangi Tonga. My friend the former Peace Corps Volunteer Emile Hons has been working the international phone lines and reports that 80 percent of the downtown is destroyed. The old Tungi Arcade, gone. The Pacific Royale hotel, gone. The Indian department stores—gone. And of course Shoreline, the modern communications company started by the King-designate when he was Crown Prince—ratted and burned. By one account, many of the Chinese immigrants to the country—they bought their passports in a royal scandal some years back—are hunkered in the Chinese Embassy, waiting out the troubles.

Hons tells me that woodframed historic structures, the Royal Palace, the Nuku’alofa Club, and the Parliament House, have survived the riots. These sites will surely be the focus of the Aussie and N.Z. troops that arrived over the weekend, restoring order.

The riots are a paradigm shift for the Friendly Islands. They reflect a long-traditional people’s impatience with a feudal structure of government and a Parliament dominated by noblemen. Or as former Peace Corps Volunteer Bob Forbes says:

I think the biggest burden is now on the shoulders of [future King] Siaosi Tupou V and
especially the nobles in Parliament, who have the power to slowly change things.

Maybe not so slowly. The democracy movement has been around for many years now, with few real reforms to show for its efforts. Its time has come at last. The Tongans are a creative and (ordinarily) gentle people. I’m pulling for their leaders to wake up and grasp the moment.