Crisis looms after Tongan passports sold

Last updated 15:38 27/03/2014

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Tonga is slipping into a high-level political crisis after revelations its diplomatic passports have been sold to Chinese nationals on the express order of the island nation's prime minister.

The issue is splitting the already divided royal family, with King Tupou VI ordering that passports not be sold - but the queen mother insisting they be given to her Chinese friends.

Diplomatic passports give holders special high-security access in many airports around the world.
Auckland would be the first place they would be used.

Tonga has had a long history of selling citizenship and passports. In the 1990s it gave them away to runaway despots such as Ferdinand Marcos, of the Philippines, and his family, Hong Kong criminals and Libyan and Palestinian nationals.

Tongan news website NZ Kaniva Pacific says the king told Prime Minister Siale'ataongo Tu'ivakano not to issue passports to a Chinese national, Sien Lee, and his wife.

However, in Tonga the real power rests with the Queen Mother, Halaevalu Ahome'e, and she ordered the passport be given to her friends.

Kaniva says the prime minister then told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue the passport, or face consequences.

It says it is the fourth diplomatic passport given to Lee.

Kaniva said it had obtained emails from Foreign Affairs Secretary Mahe 'Uli'uli Tupouniua who told staff of the prime minister's involvement.

"I suggest we abide by his direction at this stage as he made it very clear to me yesterday that we take action or else."

Another official commented in emails: "I'd hate to be around when HM Tupou IV, finds out."

Tonga's Audit Office has also warned that the practice of giving diplomatic passports is unacceptable "and puts the country's reputation at risk and should be discontinued immediately".

Tonga's royal family has had a disastrous impact on the nation when it interferes.

The most infamous case was when the current king's father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, appointed a court jester, Jesse Bogdonoff, of California, in 2001. Bogdonoff was also told to manage a Tongan trust fund worth US$26 million ($30 million).

The money disappeared and has never been recovered while Bogdonoff, who denies stealing it, now calls himself Jesse Dean and offers classes in hypnosis.

Tonga's government is regularly in crisis, and this year was largely unable to manage the Cyclone Ian disaster due to infighting in Cabinet.

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- Fairfax Media

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