Tonga’s Emancipation and Democracy: Lens of history

Tonga emancipation and democracy through history


The 4th of June marks the historical ending of Tonga’s Treaty of Friendship and Protectorship with Great Britian that was established on 18 May, 1900. Although Tonga remains the only kingdom in the South Pacific that has never been colonized, the above treaty allowed the British Foreign Office control of exercising Tonga’s foreign affairs, while the Monarch continued to govern Tonga as a sovereign nation.

Her Majesty Queen Salote Tupou III hosts Queen Elizabeth on her royal visit to Tonga in 1953

Before Queen Salote Tupou III’s death in 1965, it was her wish to see Tonga fully independent. Subsequent amendments to the treaty gave further powers over internal Tongan affairs to the British, thus eroding the true autonomy of Tonga. On June 4, 1970, Tonga officially withdrew from its protectorship agreement with Great Britain and instead became a part of the British Commonwealth.

Ironically, another significant event in Tonga’s history also took place on June 4th, but over a 160 years ago, when King George Tupou I declared the abolition of serfdom in the official emancipation edict as part of his 1862 Code of Laws:

Tupou I, Father of Modern Tonga

“All chiefs and people are to all intents and purposes set at liberty from serfdom, and all vassalage, from the institution of this law; and it shall not be lawful for any chief or person, to seize, or take by force, or beg authoritatively, in Tonga fashion, anything from anyone.”

Tupou I is credited for unifying Tonga under one dynastic monarchy (Tupou), and reforming a feudal system to give common people more rights and freedom under the Constitution of 1875, which has evolved today to a more democratic form of government.

Brief history of Tonga’s democracy (a non-Tongan guest writer’s analysis)

The islands of the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga sprawl over the oceanic archipelago, two-thirds of them between Hawaii and New Zealand. The total Tonga population is 104,000, people still live mainly off the land and sea, a quarter of the nation’s economy hangs on remittances sent home by Tongan migrants overseas. On average, a Tongan’s annual income is less than $10,000 and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, still, Tongans boast long healthy lives, good education, and decent standards of living. 98% of the people are literate Christians. The nation’s most unique feature is its strongly traditional social structure and politically ruled age-old customs that hold a deep-seated system of hierarchy remodeled into law with the 1875 Constitution. In Tonga, the king sits at the pinnacle of the society as the unifying symbol for all Tongans, next to him are the nobility, and descendants of chiefly bloodlines. The rest of the population are known as  as the commoners.

An overview of Tonga’s emerging democracy

Tonga’s 145-year-old constitution declares that everyone, Chiefs and commoners, is equal under God and under the law, still, the same Constitution passed by King George I in 1875, also holds on to a hierarchy where the King has the right to choose the prime minister as well as most of the government ministers.  Nobles and commoners have equal representation in the parliament. Parliament’s members of the pro-democratic movement in Tonga think this distribution of power is unfair, the people of the country are underrepresented in Parliament and in the government while at the same time a large sum of the government income comes from the people’s pocket, from taxpayer’s money. So people are naturally bound to be given the opportunity to assess the performance of their leaders and also vote them out when the leaders are seen to be unfit. The pro-democracy movement says that they may not have a perfect government, but a democratic government can produce better people, better leaders.

Out of a long civil war that lasted from the late 18th to the early 19th century arose an ambitious young chief Tāufaʻāhau I, through political strategy and fierce warfare he took over the warring sections of the islands one by one and proclaimed himself King George Tupou, he was a Christian convert who was baptized in 1831. He opened the first parliament until June 4, 1862, that is still celebrated as a national holiday and is known as the Emancipation Day, an edict was signed which freed the commoners from the arbitrary rule of the chiefs. The king also passed Tonga’s first constitution including a bill of rights that gave all people the right to own property, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The document guaranteed Tonga’s sovereignty against the colonial powers and out of all the Pacific Islands, it saved the nation from being colonized. The sale of land to foreigners was strictly forbidden while every Tongan male over the age of 16 was entitled to eight acres of land and a town allotment to build a home. The 1839 code, 1862 Emancipation Act, and 1875 Constitution were major political reforms for its day and age, remember the time, when slavery was not only legal but favored in America and yet Tongans were having complete freedom and egalitarian monarchy. The traditional feudal system was dismantled, the people were given the right to land. The reform program that Tonga is currently witnessing is only part of the larger reform program that dates back to King George Tupou, politically with a new European-style centralized power. All allegiance was now paid to the king and the king was the guarantee of peace, stability, and prosperity for Tongans. The great reforms and revolutions were led top-down and successful leadership was an asset naturally gifted to chiefs.

This system helped Tongan people to have great power and authority because their chiefs were the custodians of their peoples. Tongan leaders have been connected to people, they have been making good decisions that changed the destiny of their people. But the public now questions many political and economic decisions of previous King Tupou IV who opened the country for foreign investment and thus the inevitable influence. The Tongan leader came under harsh attack from the public and pro-democracy camp in 2003 when Parliament enacted a series of media laws, an amendment at the cost of the Constitution regarding freedom of speech, in an effort to ban the Times of Tonga. People marched in protest and the decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court as unlawful, Tonga became the focus of negative media attention overseas. Two years later, up to 10,000 protesters in the main street of Nuku’alofa led by members of the pro-democracy movement demanded the return of Tonga’s electricity provider the Shoreline Company partly owned by the crown prince, the protestors were calling for accountability and transparency. By now, the government was taking cautious steps towards becoming more democratic including the appointment of four elected members of parliament to become government ministers, one of them, Dr. Feleti Sevele would become the first commoner Prime Minister in 2006. A major civil servant strike in 2005 soured the relationship between the public and the leadership and became a springboard for further efforts by the pro-democracy camp. After the strike, pro-democratic demonstrators would camp day in and day out across the Parliament building calling for reform, finally, a compromise was reached when the government-backed a special committee led by the late Prince ʻUluvalu, who was king’s nephew and was sympathetic to the people’s cause. The National Committee for political reform aimed to gather public input from across Tongan communities at home and abroad to give a more informed direction to the reform effort. Prince ʻUluvalu represented the ideal combination of a traditional leadership supporting the call of the masses, sadly, he was killed in a tragic car accident in July 2006, while carrying out such meetings amongst the Tongan community in San Francisco, USA.

In 2006, the Committee presented its complete report, less than two weeks later, King Tupou IV would pass away at the age of 88. When his son ascended to the throne as King George Tupou V, the Tongan members of Parliament were already under intense strain. The Parliament had heard the presentation of the committee report in October and in the second week of October the cabinet presented their model to Parliament. By early November, three proposed models for reform were on the floor and the house became locked in a numbers game as the result of widespread public consultations. The report recommended an increase of elected people’s representatives from 9 to 17, the representatives of the noble were to remain at nine, and all cabinet ministers were to be appointed from the total pool of Representatives. The pro-democratic group wanted 21 people’s representatives and nine nobles although their original bid to cut the number of nobles to six did not gain much public support. The government opposed both models as too radical and proposed 14 people’s representatives, nine noble representatives, as well as the King’s right to select at least one-third of the cabinet ministers. One important thing to note here is that all models wish for Tonga to remain a constitutional monarchy and for the Prime Minister to be selected from the House members.

Riot in Nuku’alofa 16/11

The people resorted to protest for democratic reforms, and the crowd had become so large by November 16th that some of the nobles and ministers felt intimidated. The Speaker of the House refused to reconvene the proceedings until the people were moved away, the people’s representatives argued for the crowd’s right to demonstrate and for the popular voice to be heard. They stood staunch on the call for a vote on the people’s demands that’s what happened on 16 November.  After the riot of November 2006 that destroyed 80% of the businesses in the capital, the 2008 election was anticipated to reveal the general public opinion about the reform, once again, the pro-democratic camp won the largest number of votes by a landslide, and the longing for change could no longer be ignored. Later that year, days before his delayed coronation ceremony in August 2008 King George Tupou V announced his willingness to cede all executive government powers given to him by the Constitution. He appointed a fresh constitutional and electoral commission to again gather the input from the public and formulate a plan for the reform process. 

A new democratic era of reform

This was the beginning of a new democratic era with a more democratic government. In November 2010, the efforts of the Tong and pro-democracy movement over the decades had bore fruition, the constitutional amendments allowed the public to vote for 17 representatives to the Parliament in addition to nine chosen by the nobles. For the first time in history, the public vote will determine the majority of political leaders. The king will remain on the throne but will no longer have a part in running government affairs. 

Tongan society is a closely knitted society based upon hierarchical kingship. For the Tongan people, the political structure is simply a reflection of the traditional roles of hierarchy. Thus political reform is more than an issue of governance, it is entangled with matters of identity, culture, and knowing one’s role in the larger community and society.  

Currently, Tonga’s flailing democracy still struggles to find its footing, economic challenges and divided political factions are continual obstacles for Tonga to overcome in order for the country to see growth and its true potential.



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