King of Tonga dies

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 10:27 19/03/2012

The Tongan Government has confirmed King Tupou V died in a Hong Kong hospital. Michael Field reports.

Tupou V at a state ceremony held at Government House in Wellington in 2011, inspecting the Guard of Honour.
ANDREW GORRIE Zoom
King Tupou V at a state ceremony held at Government House in Wellington in 2011, inspecting the Guard of Honour.

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LATEST: Tonga's King George Tupou V has died in Hong Kong, Prime Minister Lord Siale'ataonga Tu'ivakano has told the kingdom this morning.

Tupou, 63, has long suffered a range of illnesses and last year had a cancerous kidney removed in the United States.

But his death came as a shock in the kingdom of 100,000 people, if only because at his last public appearance, meeting Pope Benedict in the Vatican earlier this month, he appeared healthy and ebullient.

Tupou's brother and now the new king - Tupouto'a Lavaka Ata - was with Tupou when he died. With Tonga's government especially frail and facing economic default, there is alarm over the capabilities of the new king.

Tupou assumed the throne in 2006 on the death of his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

With growing pressures for democracy in the absolute monarchy, riots broke out in the capital Nuku'alofa, killing eight people and destroying the central business district.

The riots later prompted Tupou to relinquish much of his royal powers and he said the kingdom would move from royal control to democracy.

But the monarchy retained considerable influence and power in the kingdom, reflected in his lavish coronation, costing the government around T$5 million (NZ$3 million).

KING'S DEATH 'A SHOCK'

Tonga's veteran pro-democracy politician 'Akilisi Pohiva said that while most people knew the king was seriously ill, his death came as a shock.

Pohiva said the death was also a potential financial disaster for the kingdom which has been on the edge of financial default for the last year.

Now the kingdom faced the "enormous cost" of the funeral ahead as well as a planned royal wedding and a coronation, Pohiva said.

"I don't think the government can face this," he said.

Pohiva said he did not sense the same level of frustration at the royal family that there had been after the last king died, when the Nuku'alofa riots occurred.

"There is a lot of concern about the deteriorating economy and if it gets worse then we don't know what will happen."

Prime Minister John Key said New Zealanders would be saddened by the death of Tupou, who was the "architect" of the Pacific nation's evolving democracy.

The chairman of the Auckland Tongan Advisory Council Malino Maka said that the community here was still waiting for official announcements before organising ceremonies.

He said it was expected that the late king's body would arrive in Auckland later this week. They did not know if he would lie in state at the Tongan Royal Palace in Auckland, 'Atalaga, before transport back to Tonga.

Maka praised the late king's legacy of democracy in the kingdom.

He said he knew his reign would be short as he had serious health issues as crown prince.

"He was very keen to get democracy into the kingdom quickly," he said.

This included removing his younger brother (and now king) Lavaka Ata as prime minister and installing a commoner, Fred Sevele.

"The people will feel sad at his death but he did achieve democracy in a short time," Maka said.

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NEW KING

New king Lavaka Ata, 47, trained as a naval officer but was appointed to government by his father who, at the time, selected all unelected cabinet members to life terms.

He was defence and foreign minister and in 2000 was named as prime minister.

His premiership was regarded as disastrous for the kingdom and included the creation of an international airline which went broke, saddling the kingdom with massive debts.

With growing calls for democracy, he resigned in 2006 without explanation.

Lavaka Ata's son, and now crown prince, Siaosi Manumataongo 'Alaivahamama'o 'Aho'eitu Konstantin Tuku'aho, 25, was due to marry his cousin in May.

The late king once said that Tongans were squatters who "left to their own devices they would urinate in the elevators. As it is, they see nothing wrong with allowing their pigs to run all over their townships leaving pig droppings everywhere."

CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE

Tonga's much-loved Queen Salote Tupou was on the throne when the late king was born on May 4, 1948, as Prince Siaosi Taufa'ahau Manumataongo Tuku'aho Tupou.

When he was 17 the queen died in Auckland and his father became king and he became a Crown Prince under the noble title of Tupouto'a.

He was later dispatched to Sydney's Newington College, educator of many a Tongan conservative, and onto Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in the UK.

His father appointed him to cabinet in 1979, as foreign minister.

In the diplomatic world he was regarded as something of a parody, showing no interest in Tongan or South Pacific regional affairs, but keen to discuss the battle order of the Warsaw Pact nations.

He wore a rich array of military uniforms complete with self-awarded medals.

He was an avid collector of toy soldiers and staged Agatha Christie-type murder mysteries in Nuku'alofa for his friends.

He said he had written a Tolstoy-esque novel on Russia and wearing a pith helmet, goggles and riding pants, he filmed and directed a television documentary on remote Mongolian tribesmen.

None of it saw public light.

He said he sampled his first alcohol as a five-year-old at a garden party for the visiting Queen Elizabeth II; it marked the beginning of life-long rich living. He was a stalwart of the Nuku'alofa Club and regularly suffered crippling gout.

In 1998 he quit cabinet to follow his sister Pilolevu Tuita into the business of turning state assets into personal enterprises.

As the royal family controlled the government, it was a simple step to put the Crown Prince into business. Leaving cabinet behind, he received a 20-year lease over the Tonga Electric Power Board, the only electricity generator in the kingdom.

He defended his role in business saying Tongans didn't mind royals getting involved in it as long as it was growing taro.

Tongan culture distrusted commerce: "I think it is inspired by the brand of low church Protestant Christianity in which we were brought up and somehow if so and so is making something I must be losing something. Well, that is the short way to poverty, I am afraid."

He controlled the kingdom's internet domain name - running it from the Tongan Consul in San Francisco. He also ran the brewery, happily using the "Royal" name as its label.

He built a mansion outside of Nuku'alofa, complete with an Olympic-sized pool to run his model boats on.

Tupou had a daughter outside of marriage. She now lived in Auckland and had no royal honours.

- Stuff

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