A democratic giant of Tonga – a tribute

Akilisi Pohiva died on September 12, 2019. This tribute was originally published in The Spinoff.

Tongan prime minister ’Akilisi Pohiva will be mainly remembered as the country’s leading democrat.

For four decades he campaigned to reduce the powers of the Tongan King and institute a democratically elected parliament.

The monarchy didn’t take kindly to his efforts. In 1984 he was sacked from the public service for criticising the government, but subsequently this was declared to be an “unfair dismissal”. From that time on ‘Akilisi was never short of public support for his democracy campaigning, and was continuously elected to parliament from 1987 on.

The monarchy used every trick in the book to blunt the pro-democracy movement’s impact, including defamation actions and charges of sedition.

I first became engaged with defending ‘Akilisi in 1996, when I was a spokesperson for the Alliance Party. I was horrified that Akilisi and two colleagues had been jailed for comments in their pro-democracy newspaper Kele’a. I criticised our government for keeping mum on this gross abuse of human rights.

A few years later, in 2002, ‘Akilisi was charged with sedition for an article about the king’s wealth, but a jury acquitted him.

In 2007, ‘Akilisi was again charged with sedition, along with four other pro-democracy MPs, for allegedly being responsible for the rioting that took place following a mass pro-democracy march in Nuku’alofa. As the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson I went up to Tonga to support ‘Akilisi and his colleagues fight these trumped-up charges. I was shocked to find that the New Zealand government was going along with these sedition charges against five sitting MPs.

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement grew and the monarchy eventually conceded changes to the constitution to allow a democratic vote for a majority of the parliamentary seats. The changes took effect for the 2010 election.

I was in Tonga not long before that election with a cross-party group of New Zealand MPs. We were helping Tongan candidates understand the intricacies of a parliamentary system. At the time I remember ‘Akilisi being worried that the block of nine “nobles” MPs could frustrate the desires of what were to be 17 directly-elected MPs. And so it turned out. Despite winning 12 of the popularly-elected 17 seats in 2010, the pro-democracy MPs were outvoted 14 to 12 when the votes of the nine nobles MPs were put into the equation.

However, in the two subsequent elections (2014 and 2017) the democrats predominated and ‘Akilisi took over as prime minister. I am not qualified to judge his record on domestic issues since he came to power, except to say it couldn’t have been an easy job because of the fractious nature of Tongan politics. And ‘Akilisi has been in poor health.

But as prime minister he took an admirable stand on some important international issues, such as climate change. At last month’s Pacific Island Forum he criticised those countries (which would include New Zealand) who stay silent on the plight of the West Papuans. He said, “We should stand together in solidarity in support of the people of West Papua.” He was also rightly critical of New Zealand when Edward Snowden revealed that our government had been using the GCSB to spy on the private communications of the Tongan government.

Tonga may not yet be fully democratic – the nobles still have nine parliamentary seats – but big progress has been made under the humble and self-sacrificing leadership of ‘Akilisi Pohiva. He will be sadly missed.