When Akilisi Pohiva was presented with the Defender of Democracy award in Bogota last December it marked one step along the way in his 35 year struggle to bring democracy to Tonga.
The veteran democracy campaigner said it was important to him and for the kingdom that he had been given a Defender of Democracy Award by Parliamentarians for Global Action.
Now 72 and facing what will probably be his last election in November, Pohiva was the first Pacific Islander to receive the award.
The Defender of Democracy Award is given to people who have made significant progress in strengthening democracy and democratic practices.
Pohiva told an audience in Auckland the prize only happened because people had helped him.
He said the introduction of democracy which the Tongan 2010 constitution endorsed had been his mission since he was a student at the University of the South Pacific.
Many people believe Pohiva’s supporters will want him to become Prime Minister in the November elections.
Pohiva’s political career can be traced back into 1976 when he attended the University of the South Pacific.
Pohiva and six other Tongan students, Finau Tutone, Lopeti Senituli, ‘Uhila Liava’a, Sione Ma’ilei and Tevita Kolokihakaufisi were interested in Tongan politics.
They formed a group called the Kau Loma or the Romans. Pohiva said the group was disliked by some Tongans at the university who thought their political views would destabilise the kingdom.
According to Pohiva, the late Dr ‘Epeli Hau’ofa, who was later Deputy Private Secretary to the king, was at the university in 1976. During a meeting with the Loma group Dr Hau’ofa told them about a proposal by former Minister of Education Dr Langikavaliku to the King’s Privy Council asking His Majesty to set up a commission to review the constitution.
Pohiva said the Loma group undertook to pursue Dr Hu’akavameiliku’s proposal.
“We met every weekend and talked Dr Kavaliku’s proposal over in our faikava,” Pohiva said.
“We determined to pursue it and to make sure Tonga’s political system changed accordingly.”
Kenneth Bain quoted Dr Langikavaliku in his book The New Friendly Islander: A Voice from Within:
“…in 1975 I put up a specific proposal to his majesty for constitutional change, designed to give people a greater voice in the course of their affairs. It was debated in cabinet at 12 separate meetings, deferred time after time and eventually dropped… It aimed to change to a fully elected system over a period of time not less than nine and not more than fifteen year …Now (1991) sixteen years later time may be running out. It is vital in my opinion that the government takes that initiative and announces a Constitutional Review Commission. It should just accept the principle of examining these matters and start the process publicly. ..But sometimes I don’t know whether we can afford to wait too long.”
Pohiva said the political mission he and his group at USP undertook was challenging because the ideas were absolutely new to the Tongan public.
He said it was not an easy task to change the mentality of people who had lived under a political system in which the ruler was regarded as divine.
Proposals faced often violent resistance to his ideas.
During a faikava (kava drinking ceremony) in Kolomotu’a in 1980 he was physically attacked for his views, but decided it was something he had to accept.
Kolomotu’a is one of the largest towns in Tonga where the royals and high chiefs reside.
One night at the Huolanga club he told the kava drinkers it was not right for the king to rule as almost an absolute ruler without the people having a say in the government’s decision making.
One of the respected villagers in the club was a blind man called Mafile’o. He became furious when he heard Pohiva challenging the monarchy and struck him with his walking stick.
Pohiva was elected to parliament but was arrested many times because of his strong criticisms of the monarch.
Pohiva managed to change the way many people voted. Traditionally they supported a candidate either because they were family or friends, were in the same church or because the candidates wooed them with money and gifts.
Pohiva always told voters: “I have no money to give you so that you can vote for me. I can only afford kava to drink with you while sharing my political views for a country that would serve us better.”
The traditional way voting has not completely disappeared, however.
It still exists in some places but most people on mainland Tongatapu and Ha’apai as well as ‘Eua have changed their way of voting and only vote for people with appealing policies.
Pohiva always maintained that democracy would provide the people’s right to rule their government and safeguard the monarch from becoming subject to accusations by taxpayers because of any decision he made.
He regarded those who opposed his democratic views as opportunists who used the king and the royals for personal gains and at times over-stepped the social boundaries, which discredited the monarchy.
One night Pohiva was presented on Tongan television as a direct challenge to the king.
On an OBN television programme presented by the late ‘Emosi ‘Alatini before the 2002 general election, ‘Alatini asked his audience whether they would vote for Pohiva or King Tupou IV.
The next day Pohiva was elected to Parliament.
Pohiva said he was unhappy with what OBN Television did because the monarch had been degraded by a thoughtless question.
Pohiva was a teacher at government's primary schools after finishing secondary school and after graduating from USP he was posted by Tonga’s Ministry of Education to teach at the Teachers’ Training College.
He was Senior Lecturer in Social Science and Education.
Tonga’s education curriculum does not allow politics to be taught at schools, but he taught his students about Tonga’s politics and their constitutional rights, particularly their right to know, the right to express themselves and the right to participate in their government’s decision making.
He taught his students about how the government collected taxes and used them without the people’s knowledge of approval.
Pohiva thought classroom teaching was limited to only to a number of people and so in March 1981, he initiated and hosted a radio programme called Matalafo-Laukai.
Pohiva said because the programme was a new approach to broadcasting for Tongan listeners he thought that getting the support of the largest religious denominations in Tonga would help it succeed.
He approached two prominent church leaders at the time, Late Bishop Patelesio Finau of the Catholic Church and Late President of the Free Wesleyan Church, Dr ‘Amanaki Havea.
After the two leaders heard about his intention to discuss how the monarch ruled the kingdom they were worried it would cause trouble.
Pohiva told them it would be possible if they would join him in the programme . The religious leaders agreed and on the first programme in 1981 they discussed the right to know.
Pohiva said they were cautious while conducting the first programme and most of the time they used metaphors to avoid causing any offence and to work out how listeners reacted.
The programme was well received by many people, but agitated the royal government leaders and their supporters.
As a result the government took the programme off air in 1983. Pohiva asked the Tongan Broadcasting Commission’s then managing director, Tavake Fusimalohi, to reinstate the programme.
Fusimalohi agreed and told Pohiva he had to write to the government and ask permission from them.
The government approved Pohiva’s request to restore Matalafo-Laukai but Fusimalohi had to strictly monitor how it was presented.
When the programme went back on air they discussed what they called Misinale Fakafonua, or National Church Donation.
Pohiva and ‘Amanaki discussed how the government collected taxes from people through sales tax. They emphasized to the listeners that whenever they purchased goods from whatever type of sales providers, a percentage of what they paid went to government as sales tax.
Pohiva said if people understood how they collected money for the government it would be easier for the programme to discuss how the government distributed and spent that money.
Friends and foes
Dr Freddie Sevele was one of Pohiva’s strongest supporters in the early days. Pohiva said Sevele gave him money to help keep Matalafo-Laukai on air and they became friends.
Pohiva told his supporters to vote for Sevele because he wanted to work with him in the fight for democracy. Sevele was elected to Parliament in 1999, but his relationship with Pohiva cooled in 2005 when he accepted a ministerial post and became Prime Minister the following year.
Pohiva said their relationship became so unfriendly that once, when he met Sevele in Ma’ofanga and tried to strike up a conversation with him, his long- time friend snubbed him completely.
Pohiva has a reputation of being able to work with anybody in politics as long as they are loyal supporters of democracy. He has remained friends with people who have turned against him personally if he thought they still supported democratic ideals.
The veteran politician has attracted his fair share of enemies.
While the late Tavake Fusimalohi was Managing Director of the Tongan Broadcasting Commission, which owned Radio and Television Tonga, he was a fierce opponent of Pohiva, especially after Matalafo-Laukai was taken off air. Radio Tonga ran many programmes demonising Pohiva and his supporters.
Fusimalohi wrote letters to the editor of the Tongan government's newspaper Kalonikali in the 1990s using the pseudonym Etika.T.Tonga in which criticising Pohiva.
Pohiva surprised many of his followers when, in 2004, he appointed Fusimalohi editor of his newspaper Kele’a.
By then Fusimalohi had retired and the Tongan government was demanding that Tongan newspapers must apply for a license and be edited by a person with a university degree in journalism. Pohiva saw this as an attempt to shut down Kele’a because of its criticism of the government.
When his supporters asked him why he had taken this step, Pohiva told them that Fusimalohi, like many senior civil servants, opposed him because they feared losing their jobs, but really supported the idea of bringing democracy to Tonga.
To prove his point, he later revealed that a Director of Education in Tonga, Paula Bloomfield, was also one of his sponsors. He only said this after he had retired.
Dismissal from public service
However, discussing how the government spent and distributed taxpayers money on air brought Pohiva and its Matalafo-Laukai programme to an end. The Government ordered the programme to be shut down in the Christmas of 1984.
On February 2 1985 he received a letter from Cabinet saying he was dismissed from the public service as a teacher.
Pohiva’s students at Tonga Teachers’ College described him and his followers as politiki (politic), a word they coined to describe him as an outstanding figure engaged in political changes that fiercely challenged the status quo.
The word politiki was later widely used in a disapproving sense to refer to any person critical of anything in Tongan society.
Because Pohiva’s political views were based on democratic principles the word temo was also coined by his opponents to refer to a person who believed in democracy.
The two words are not yet in the Tongan dictionary but are widely used when talking politics in Tonga.
The main points
- Akilisi Pohiva, a veteran campaigner for democracy in Tonga, was presented with the Defender of Democracy award by the group Parliamentarians for Global Action last December.
- Pohiva said the award was possible because of the support of the Tongan people.
- Pohiva has spent 35 years campaigning for democracy in Tonga.
- He has been repeatedly arrested and his family harassed, but he did not give up and was elected to the Tongan parliamentarian.
- Now 74, he faces what will probably be his last election in Tonga at the end of this year.
This story is based on many interviews and conversation with Akilisi since 1989 and recently in New Zealand from 2007 – 2013. You might also find these helpful: