Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rioting in the Pacific

The recent news of the rioting, looting and destruction in Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa is quite sad. With eight deaths and the rebuilding cost already estimated at $75 million USD it's a heavy blow to the country. The healing process will no doubt take many years.

A short news story on the Radio New Zealand International website caught my eye this morning. Apparently some palagis have suggested that Samoa will be the next country in the region to "have the same troubles as Tonga". Samoan Prime Minister, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, responded by stating that "the strength of the Samoan cultural ties and the people’s respect for its traditional leaders and traditional avenues in resolving dispute will always prevail". But isn't all of this missing the mark?

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy and the Tongan monarchy plays a very strong role in the country's political process. The Tongan Cabinet currently consists of 14 members, 10 appointed by the monarch for life; 4 appointed from among the elected members of the Legislative Assembly, including 2 each from the nobles and peoples representatives serving three year terms. There are no elections; the prime minister and deputy prime minister are appointed by the monarchy.

For several years a strong pro-democracy movement has been growing in Tonga. It "emphasises reforms including better representation in the Parliament for the majority commoners, and better accountability in matters of state" (Wikipedia entry). Recently, a Constitutional Commission has been considering suggestions as to how Tonga's constitution might be reformed.

With the September succession to the throne by Siaosi Tupou V, it was believed by many that there would be advances in the reform process sooner rather than later. The rioting is said to have been triggered when it seemed that the parliament would adjourn for the year without having made any advances in increasing democracy in government.

By contrast, Samoa is a mix of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The Samoan monarchy, generally speaking, plays little role in the political process. There are elections held every five years and the government has been very open to political, judicial and legislative reform, driven particularly by cooperative foreign aid/development projects.

In short, Samoans have democracy where Tongans do not. It's certainly not perfect and does have its fair share of problems but by and large it works. As such, Tuila’epa's comments about the strong ties within Samoan culture, the respect for traditional leaders and traditional disputation processes are valid but in my eyes don't really strike at the heart of the matter. Furthermore, as the legal challenges following the March 2005 elections illustrate (see here, here and here), there is a growing tension between the traditional power structures and the newer judicial and legislative structures. Since I left Samoa in September, I have heard of two more cases held in the Land & Titles Court challenging village rulings over banishments.

Nonetheless, I agree completely with Tuila'epa's refutation of the claim that Samoa will be the next Pacific nation to endure mass civil disobedience and rioting. I simply cannot imagine it happening. I hope Tonga can solve the problems it faces and wish the very best for my friends in Tonga and my friends elsewhere with family in Tonga.

Mau nofo a e.