Tonga splurges on laid up ship

02:52, Mar 11 2014

Cyclone and poverty-stricken Tonga has spent the equivalent of about half of New Zealand's cyclone aid to buy a laid up 35-year-old ship owned by former business partners of the royal family.

Until last month, the 490 deadweight ton MV St Theresa was on rotten row in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

Now it is to be operated by the same government agency that bought the 42-year-old Fiji ferry, Princess Ashika, which sank in 2009 with the loss of 74 lives.

Now known as the Friendly Islands Shipping Agency (Fisa), it plans to use St Theresa to carry containers of aid donated by the Tongan community in New Zealand for victims of last month's Cyclone Ian on Ha'apai.

Cyclone Ian hammered the group on January 11, prompting New Zealand to give $1.9 million in official aid. China gave $600,000.

Expatriate Tongans have donated food, clothing and building material for Ha'apai but much of it has been left decaying on wharves in Auckland and Nuku'alofa.


Fisa said this week it had paid a 10 per cent deposit on the final price of $936,000 for St Theresa and would have the ship ready by next month.

In a statement Fisa chairman Tapu Panuve said Auckland's Dunsford Marine surveyors had examined the ship.

Chief executive Vaka'utapola Vi said Fisa had looked at other ships that were rundown and needed repair.
They selected St Theresa because it had recently arrived from Auckland.

While laid up in Auckland it was owned by Vanuatu-registered Pacific Royale Shipping Group Ltd, whose directors were Auckland brothers Joseph and Soane Ramanlal.

The Ramanlals have long been controversial figures closely associated with the late King George Tupou V's businesses when he was crown prince.

When Tupou V was Crown Prince Tupuoto'a he worked with the Ramanlals, especially with the Shoreline company that took over the state's electricity generator and a mobile phone company.

During the 2006 Nuku'alofa riots Shoreline was targeted and destroyed. Six people died in the building.

When pro-democracy riots destroyed downtown Nuku'alofa, the Ramanlals fled to Auckland in a private jet and now live in a mansion compound in Epsom.

When they bought St Theresa in 2011, Tupou V gave them the exclusive right to run the ship from Tonga to New Zealand, forcing Reef Shipping off the trade.

Although Tupou V died in March 2012 the Ramalals continue to have close royal family connections.

In October 2012 Joseph Ramanlal was arrested over an incident in which St Theresa sailed from Auckland to Nuku'alofa. Before it reached Nuku'alofa a royal yacht was sent out to sea to meet it where frozen food was transferred before Customs could check it.

Local media reports said at the time that the food was for a Ramanlal wedding in Nuku'alofa.

The matter was settled without going to court.