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  • Tonga
  • Heather E Young Leslie (bio)

The last decade has seen an escalation of social, political, and economic changes in Tonga, but the events of the past year have been extraordinary: Thousands of people participated in numerous protest marches, climaxing in a general strike that held the government hostage for six weeks; royal family insiders spoke publicly against the authority of the king; the first elected and commoner member of Parliament was named prime minister; the first woman was appointed to cabinet; and the king gave his assent to the National Committee for Political Reform. It has been a dramatic, traumatic, and emancipatory year for Tonga, and in these respects the consequences of the popular uprisings of 2005–2006 constitute a political, social, and psychological coup for Tongans at home and abroad.

In March 2005, whistle-blower revelations about Shoreline, the company holding a monopoly on power generation, provided the impetus for the first major march of what became a season of marches. Piveni Piukala, a former computer systems manager at Shoreline, alleged financial mismanagement, falsification of audits, and exorbitant salaries of approximately US$400,000 each for the three main executives, Sosefo Ramanlal, Soane Ramanlal, and Crown Prince Tupou­to'a. Piukala warned that the problems at Shoreline would cause the people to feel disloyal toward the royal family and especially toward the crown prince. In early May, the People's Representatives filed writs in the Supreme Court against Shoreline and the Tonga Electric Power Board. At the same time, the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement (THRDM) began organizing a petition and conferring with the People's Democracy Party and other "Demos" —democracy movement supporters—about a protest. The petition listed objections to the way the national electricity provision had been privatized, to the fact that Shoreline held a monopoly, and to the fact that electricity was so expensive while the company's directors received such high salaries. After gaining twenty thousand signatures, on 26 May 2005a record four thousand people marched to present the petition to thepalace. It was read aloud by the THRDM president, the Rev Simote Vea. As he spoke, Vea also called on the king to surrender power to the people and to become a ceremonial figurehead like the monarch in Brit­ain. (The People's Representatives later disavowed prior knowledge of these latter demands.)

The next day, parliamentarians [End Page 262] considered the forthcoming budget and appropriations for salary revisions, which had been going through committees including the Higher Salary Review Committee. Amid the debate, 'Akilisi Pohiva, the First People's Representative for Tongatapu, was steadfast in moving for a delay on the salary revisions vote. His motions were defeated, and on 1 July the new salary scales came into effect. Upper-echelon civil servants were awarded raises of up to 57 percent, while some of those in the bottom tiers received nothing.

The public servants' strike was thedefining event of 2005. It began, unofficially, early in July. Soon after the salary revisions were released, deputy ministers and other mid-level administrators from various sections of the public service began clandestinely discussing the recently released revised salary scales. Their cautious discussions with each other stemmed from the unusual way in which salaries and departmental budgets hadbeen released: Previously, the civil roll was an open document, and civil employees were able to compare ­budgets and remuneration. But in 2005, this transparency was foregone; administrators were told that they only needed to know the information for their own sections. However, as one deputy department head told me, "The cabinet's attempt at secrecy wasdefeated in the Tongan way: Ofcourse, we all have family in other parts of the civil service. After some phone calls, we knew the whole budget! That's when we knew that the pay rises were unfair."

A meeting of a thousand civil servants on 13 July led to the formalization of the Public Service Association (PSA), with Finau Tutone as president and Maliu Takai as vice president. At the meeting there were calls for a national strike and another protest march, but the newly formed PSA executive managed to convince the members to begin with a letter...


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