Friday, November 17, 2006
Rioting erupted in Tonga today in protest at the slow pace of democratic reform, with rampaging protesters setting fire to buildings and overturning police and government vehicles. The violence erupted two months after the death of the South Pacific nation’s conservative king.
Rioting crowds overturned cars, looted and set fire to shops and offices, and stoned government buildings including the prime minister’s office.
“Five or possibly six people appear to have been killed,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
Downer said the situation was serious, and Australia and New Zealand had troops and police on standby to fly to Tonga, but Tongan authorities have said they can control the situation.
Chinese-owned shops were being targeted and the police had been powerless to help, he said.
“It’s scary,” witness Linny Folau told the Matangi Tonga online magazine, saying rioters were jumping and dancing to loud music in a park opposite parliament.
Clouds of black smoke hung over large areas of the normally sleepy capital, including the offices of the company Shoreline, partly owned by King George Tupou V, one witness told Reuters.
The rioting began after parliament went into recess for the year without voting on proposals for sweeping democratic reforms to Tonga’s semi-feudal system.
Late on Thursday evening, however, the Tonga-Now website quoted prominent pro-democracy member of parliament Akilisi Pohiva claiming victory and urging demonstrators to stop looting and go home.
Winston Peters said New Zealand, which has long-standing links with Tonga and a large expatriate Tongan community, would help the island nation to recover from the violence and damage, but for now the issue was a domestic matter.
In August 2005 public servants staged a six-week strike over pay that halted services at hospitals and schools.
There are no universal elections in Tonga, where 10 of the 14 cabinet posts in government are appointed by the monarchy for life. However it appears now that the government has agreed to new elections in 2008 in which a majority of the parliament would be directly elected by popular vote.
When he succeeded his late father in September, King Tupou V signalled some democratic changes.