Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tonga gets first elected leader.

When I was in high school, I was fascinated by the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian island nation in the South Pacific. I'm not totally certain where I first stumbled upon Tonga, but I have a feeling it may have been in the pages of National Geographic. I collected back issues of National Geographic when I was a kid, largely because the magazine's vivid if dated accounts of putatively exotic foreign lands fed my youthful imagination. I remember one 1967 issue of National Geographic had a story contrasting two royal events that occurred that year: the lavish coronation of the Shah of Iran and the equally dignified though much humbler crowning of Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. Wherever my interest in Tonga came from, it bore fruit in a class presentation I gave in eleventh grade. Back then the Internet was relatively undeveloped as a source of information, so I wrote to the Tongan government for assistance with my project. In response, I received a gracious letter from a senior government official on palace stationery, an official photograph of the King and Queen and a crisp copy of the country's major (and, I suspect, only) newspaper. These items featured prominently in my presentation, which got an 'A.'

I've given relatively little thought to Tonga over the past decade, though given the opportunity I'd still enjoy visiting the country. Earlier this week, however, Tonga reentered my consciousness when I spotted this BBC News report on recent political developments in the country. Traditionally dominated by the royal family and hereditary nobles, Tongan politics have been inching toward democratization in recent years. Economic woes and corruption scandals have helped increase calls for a more open and accountable government. In the last few days, as reported by the BBC, public pressure has forced the resignation of a prime minister chosen by the King from among the nobility and his replacement by Dr. Feleti Sevele, a commoner and one of a handful of elected representatives in Tonga's parliament. It's been a long time since I paid any attention to Tongan politics, so I'm ill-equipped to analyze the full import of this development. However, I hope Dr. Sevele's accession to the office of prime minister is a positive step forward for the Tongan people. I'm also pleased that this news gave me an opportunity to reflect on a long-neglected interest in a small island nation. God save Tonga, AMDG.


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