Friday, June 20, 2014

Why Tongan democracy should interest us all

The Tonga Festival of Democracy, which features a series of seminars, an art show, dance performances, and prayers, opened in Nuku'alofa on Tuesday. The festival aims to lift the standards of political debate in the Friendly Islands, and will feature contributions by pillars of Tongan society, like senior members of the royal family, as well as political and cultural rebels, like 'Akilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of the Democratic Party, and Tevita Latu, the founder of the avant-garde art movement called the Selaka Club.

The festival is timely, because Tonga will hold a general election in November. After winning 70% of the popularly elected seats in parliament but being denied government at the last national poll in 2010, the Democratic Party is promising to make history in November. For their part, the nobles who run Tonga's conservative government remain outspokenly hostile to 'Akilisi Pohiva and his deputy Steven Halapaua, and are desperate to hold onto power.

I was delighted to see photographs and footage from the opening of the Festival of Democracy on facebook, because last year, when I was living in Nuku'alofa and teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, I worked with the political scientist, Free Wesleyan minister and pig farmer Taniela Vao to help secure funding from the European Union for the event. Taniela and I spent hours in Nuku'alofa's Escape cafe, squinting at the pages of panoptic rules and regulations drawn up by the European Union's funding agencies, and filling out form after form. Eventually we were able to get some money, and this year a team put together by the 'Atenisi Institute has developed a thorough and promising programme for the festival.
I want to use this blog post to argue that New Zealanders should be interested in Tonga's complicated and unfinished journey towards democracy, and in the whole of the modern history of the country, because of the light that Tonga throws on our own problems and preoccupations.

Tupou I's great experiment

Tonga is one of New Zealand's closest neighbours - a flight from Auckland to the airport outside Nuku'alofa takes only two and a half hours - but the history and present of the Friendly Islands rarely interest Kiwis. Many of us discount Tonga because of the country's modest size - its one hundred and fifty islands are spread over an area the size of New Zealand, but they would barely fill Lake Taupo, and its population of one hundred thousand would fit into one of our larger provincial cities.

Despite its size, though, Tonga has had an unusual and instructive history. Unlike every other indigenous Pacific people, the Tongans avoided colonisation by palangi powers in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s and '40s a chief named Taufa'ahau united and Christianised Tonga, which had suffered decades of civil war, and proclaimed himself Tupou I, the leader of a modern and independent nation. The king built a palace and Wesleyan churches, designed a flag for his nation, and began to make laws.

In 1853, when he had suppressed the final armed uprising against his rule, Tupou I visited Sydney to examine Western civilisation first-hand. Although he was impressed by the modern technology he found in Australia's largest town, the king was astonished and upset to see impoverished Sydneysiders sleeping rough in the city's parks. When he asked his hosts how poverty and landlessness could exist in such a vast and wealthy country, he was told that such things were a by-product of capitalism, the social and economic system that Britain had exported to Australia.

After his return to Tonga, Tupou I is supposed to have resolved to protect his subjects from the extremes of capitalist civilisation. With the assistance of  Shirley Baker, a Wesleyan missionary turned anti-imperialist, Tupou I designed a unique social and economic system for Tonga.

In 1862 the king emancipated peasant farmers, who had previously lived as serfs on the lands of chiefs. The constitution Tupou and Baker published in 1875 nationalised Tonga's soil and forebade its sale, but entitled every adult to the permanent lease of a small plot of farmland. The chiefs were deprived of their old arbitrary powers, renamed nobles, paid generous salaries, and made into managers of the land distribution system.

Tupou I's constitution also talked of the right of Tongans to freedom of speech and worship, though when a split developed amongst the country's Wesleyan majority and independent newspapers began to criticise the government it was soon evident that these rights existed more on paper than in practice. Tupou I sought to attract traders and modern technology to his kingdom, but he placed limits on their activities.

It is worth noting the novelty of the system Tupou I created, because the story of modern Tonga is in large part the story of this system and its troubles.

In some other parts of the nineteenth century world, especially Europe, peasants had been emancipated from their old feudal masters, either by modernising rulers or by revolutions. Usually, though, emancipation was accompanied by reforms easing the buying and selling of land. As old feudal estates and peasants commons were broken up, modernised, and bought and sold, money flowed into cities, and peasants followed the money, becoming labourers in factories.

In many Pacific societies colonised by palangi, chiefly or customary lands were taken over by the colonists, who turned them into plantations - huge, outdoor factories where former peasants worked for (very low) wages.

In Tonga, though, the emancipated peasantry was not urbanised, and did not become a rural working class. Tupou I had created a nation of independent small farmers.

Although they leased their land individually, farmers did not live in isolation from one another. Members of the same extended family, or kainga, worked together on the soil, and shared its produce. The kainga was an intricate and elaborate circuit of relationships, which offers its members both obligations and entitlements.

Tupou I's long reign has been viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by scholars of Tongan history. Sione Latukefu, the Wesleyan minister who became Tonga's first academic historian, presented Tupou I as a messianic figure, who liberated Tonga from brutal paganism while protecting it from colonisation.

Scholars associated with Tonga's Catholic minority and with the 'Atenisi Institute have been often been less enamoured with the maker of modern Tonga. 'Opeti Taliai, the 'Atenisi graduate who is today the director of the institution, used his PhD thesis to argue that Tupou I built a 'totalitarian' system in Tonga. In an interview with me last year, Lose Helu, a long-time teacher at 'Atenisi and a scholar of Tongan oral tradition, condemned Tupou I as an autocrat and a religious maniac.

In his 2007 pamphlet Tonga in Crisis, another 'Atenisi graduate, the anthropologist 'Okusitino Mahina, offered a somewhat more equivocal view of Tupou I. According to Mahina, the king enacted some genuinely progressive reforms, like the emancipation of the peasantry, but he did so partly because of the pressure from the country's commoner majority, which was ready to throw off the domination of their chiefs. The extent to which Tonga's commoners contributed to the reform of their society by Tupou I in the second half of the nineteenth century remains unclear.

Salote's Tonga: a utopia and its discontents

Tupou I was succeeded by one of his grandsons, who was fonder of wine and poetry than of government, but in 1918 his great grand-daughter Salote took the throne, and continued his strategy of trying to modernise Tonga without giving it over to palangi capitalists and colonists. Salote carefully controlled the quantity of goods that were allowed into Tonga, and the numbers of shops that served Tongans, but she also attempted to give her people greater access to cash, by establishing cooperatives where men could market copra they had gathered together, and where women could come together to sell tapa and other craft objects.

Many visitors to Salote's Tonga were impressed by the happiness of its citizens and the openness of its institutions. Some called Tonga a utopia.

When the anthropologist Ernest Beaglehole visited Nuku'alofa in 1938, he was astonished by the casual, unpretentious ways of Salote's government. Noting that the country's Prime Minister worked out of a small, unguarded wooden fale, and was cheerfully and almost continually available to his people, Beaglehole couldn't help contrasting Tonga with a Europe that was tormented by fascism and the threat of war. In the journal he kept during his time in the Friendly Islands, Beaglehole wishes that the fascism Hitler had imposed on Germany could be replaced with Salote's system.
But twentieth century Tonga was never a completely sanguine society. In a justly famous essay called 'Wry Comment from the Outback', Wendy Pond showed how the residents of the kingdom's remotest and least powerful islands, the Niuas, used public performances of songs and dances to make coded complaints about their lot. Pond, who lived on the Niuas for years and witnessed tours of the group by Tonga's royals, was able to recognise the satirical messages that lay just beneath the surfaces of the performances that Niuans staged for their distinguished visitors.

The double crisis of contemporary Tonga

In the 1940s the system that Tupou had built faced its first serious challenge, as thousands of American and New Zealand soldiers occupied the kingdom, bringing with them cash and a demand for all manner of goods, from alcohol to women to pork. Many farmers walked off their fields and began trading with the newcomers. The appetite for Western consumer goods expanded.

After the war some of the tensions the visitors had brought dissipated, but by the 1980s Tonga had entered a crisis that has yet to end, as the system that Tupou I established was challenged politically by a pro-democracy movement and economically by capitalism.

Encouraged by Futa Helu, the founder of the 'Atenisi Institute, which gave a generation of Tongans an education  in critical thinking in the 1960s and '70s, and by the Catholic church, whose members had been marginalised for over a century by the country's Wesleyan establishment, more and more Tongans began to demand changes to the composition of their parliament, so that commoners rather than nobles could select a majority of seats, and restrictions on the power of their monarchy. In successive elections pro-democracy candidates won the handful of parliamentary seats available to commoners; in 1992 a well-attended and internationally publicised convention on democracy was organised by the 'Atenisi Institute and the Catholic church.

Futa Helu and his allies worked to democratise Tonga's cultural as well as its political institutions. They sought, for instance, to turn kava drinking from an exclusive ritual into an opportunity for education and debate. Kava had traditionally been drunk regularly only by royals and nobles, who sat around a bowl in an order that reflected their status, and talked in a laboriously decorative language. But Helu founded a movement called the fofo'anga, which held debates and fundraising drives in kava clubs established for commoners. Today there are kava clubs in every Tongan village, and politicians seeking the votes of commoners are obliged to spend long evenings there.
Tevita Latu's Selaka Club has become the meeting place for Tonga's avant-garde artists as well as for some of its political radicals. The club's name is a play on the scatological word kasele, and its members serve kava out of a toilet bowl, as they sit beneath a Tongan flag defaced with a swastika. The outrageous rituals and symbols of the 'Selakarians', as club members call themselves, show how devoted a section of the Tongan population has become to free thinking.

Capitalism as well as the movement for democracy has destabilised Tongan society in recent decades.

In the 1970s and '80s tens of thousands of Tongan emigrated to the relatively wealthy West, and sent money home to their kainga, which became less reliant on subsistent farming. At the same time, Salote's successor Tupou IV welcomed more and more foreign companies into Tonga, and opened the country to more and more imported goods.

As the supply of farmland dwindled, and more Tongans had access to cash, the nobles were able to profit from their role as the managers of much of the land. In his 1993 essay 'After the Vanilla Harvest', the Dutch sociologist Paul Van Der Grijp showed how previously independent small farmers on the northern island of Vava'u were being drawn into the web of international capitalism. Keen to grow vanilla, a crop that could be exported abroad to earn cash for consumer goods like televisions and modern fale, the farmers were borrowing large sums of money from newly established banks, and using some of this money to grease the palms of the nobles who controlled access to land. The nobles, in turn, were investing the money in various businesses. Since Van Der Grijp wrote his essay the nobles and Tonga's royal family have continued to make themselves into an indigenous capitalist class.

Problems of Tongan capitalism

But capitalism has not succeeded in conquering Tonga's economy. Attempts to bypass Tupou I's constitution and privatise land have met sharp opposition, and without the ability to own land many multinational companies are reluctant to invest large sums in the Friendly Islands.

Perhaps more importantly, the kainga has acted as a constraint on the ability of Tongan commoners to develop and maintain businesses, and to work for wages and salaries.

In his 2011 book On the Edge of the Global: Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation, American anthropologist Niko Besnier notes that Nuku'alofa is full of the sad shells of small shops which Tongans established in the 1980s and '90s to sell cheaply imported consumer goods. The relatives of the entrepeneurs who opened these shops demanded free or discounted goods, as well as shares in the shops' takings: such demands made profits and the accumulation of capital impossible, and the shops closed. In recent years many Chinese and Indian immigrants, who live outside the kainga system, have successfully reopened shops abandoned by Tongans.

The demands and rewards of the kainga system affect Tongan workers, as well as businesspeople. Palangi managers of hotels and restaurants in the kingdom often complain that their staff members will vanish at short notice from the workplace for a family get-together, or to help out with a harvest. Tongans have yet to acquire what EP Thompson called capitalist 'work-discipline'.

From crises to explosions

In the twenty-first century the political and economic frustrations of Tongans have fused. In 2005 the country's public servants staged an epic strike in support for their demands for both higher salaries and democratic reform. In a 2006 a pro-democracy rally in Nuku'alofa turned into a riot that saw the shops of Asians, nobles and royals looted.

In the months and weeks after the riot Australasian troops and police were deployed across Tonga's main island; with their approval, Tongan police rounded up and tortured hundreds of mostly young people. Tevita Latu played no part in the riot, but was nevertheless subjected to nine days of beatings at Nuku'alofa's central police station, under the noses of imported New Zealand cops. A team of investigators led by veteran human right activist Betty Blake has catalogued the abuses of 2006 in a long document studded with grotesque photographs.
In the aftermath of the 2006 riot King Tupou V, an eccentric man with little love for his royal responsibilities, negotiated a series of reforms with Tonga's democratic opposition. Tupou I's constitution was rewritten, so that the powers of the monarch were curtailed and two thirds of parliament could be elected by commoners.

But the 2010 general election showed the shortcomings of Tupou V's reforms. Despite winning a massive majority of the popular vote, 'Akilisi Pohiva's party was outmanoeuvred by Tonga's nobles, who were still guaranteed control of a third of the seats in parliament. The nobles teamed up with the minority of anti-Pohiva commoners and formed a conservative government. In 2012 Tupou V died, and was succeeded by his conservative brother, who had been a very unpopular Prime Minister in the 1990s.

Over the past couple of years Tonga's noble-led government has fallen out with Tonga's traditional allies Australia and New Zealand, and has looked instead to China, which has offered the kingdom over two hundred million dollars in soft loans. The Democratic Party has in turn built a strong alliance with Canberra and Wellington.

Is the experiment over - and should it be?

International financial organisations and Western governments have responded to Tonga's recent problems by urging the country to break completely with the system established by Tupou I and allow capitalism to establish itself securely in the kingdom.

In a series of polemical documents posing as analysis, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have called for the ban on the sale of land to be lifted, for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and for massive foreign investment. If 'Akilisi Pohiva leads the Democratic Party to victory in November, then he and his comrades are likely to face pressure from their Australasian allies to implement pro-capitalist policies. If Tonga's nobles hold power, then they may face similar pressures from their powerful Chinese ally.

In 2014, then, the future of the experiment that Tupou I launched in the 1850s looks uncertain. The peculiar system that Tupou I built, with its mixture of an autocratic government, an emancipated and yet immobilised peasantry, and free land, has been battered, but not abandoned. Parliament is more representative of the Tongan people, but the monarch and the nobles retain crucial powers. The economy has been partially opened to global capitalism, but the kainga system and the ban on land sales still frustrate Western diplomats and business people.

Some supporters of the Democratic Party consider that Tonga should embrace capitalism as well as democracy; they look forward happily, then, to the wholesale dismantling of the system Tupou I constructed. In an interview with me last year, the sociologist Maikolo Horowitz argued that capitalism was the only system that could alleviate the anger of Tongan people by driving up their living standards in a short time.

But other scholars close to the Democratic Party disagree. In between our form-filling sessions last year, Taniela Vao insisted that the Democratic Party was capable of developing Tonga without abandoning the better features of the system Tupou I created, like the ban on the sale of land.

Vao's belief that there is a 'third way' between the reactionary policies of the Tongan nobility and full-blooded capitalism may not be as utopian as it might at first seem. Over the last decade several South American nations, most notably Venezuela and Bolivia, have rejected the advice of institutions like the International Monetary Fund and attempted to develop industries that mix the muscle of a modern state with traditional, collectivist forms of production and distribution. The cooperatives set up in rural parts of these countries arguably have elements in common with the organisations that Salote tried to establish as an alternative to capitalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Taking Tonga seriously

On the rare occasions when they discuss Tonga, palangi Kiwis tend to ridicule the country as a backwater, and to contrast it negatively with the advanced, democratic nation of New Zealand. By making such a contrast, though, they avoid admitting the very real democratic deficits in their own society.

Tongans may be frustrated by their unrepresentative government, and by the rigged electoral system that produced it, but many of them are justifiably proud of the way that land and resources are shared in their country and in their kainga. Unlike New Zealanders, who worry for much of their adult lives about making rent or mortgage payments,  most Tongans have a guaranteed hold on their land. Where in New Zealand society do we find a parallel to such economic democracy?

While many Kiwis suffer from feelings of social isolation, and lack the sense of connection to a community, Tongans enjoy the security of the kainga system. Is there not something profoundly democratic about the way that kainga networks redistribute goods and services from their more to their less successful members?

By mocking Tonga, palangi Kiwis miss the opportunity to learn from their neighbour. Modern Tongan history offers us the record of a fascinating attempt to build a Polynesian alternative to colonialism and capitalism - an experiment that is not quite over.

Note: the marvellous laione at the top of this post was produced by Emma Tui Gillies, for the art exhibition that is part of the Festival of Democracy. I've written about Tui's zoological studies here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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9:03 am  
Anonymous Jack said...

An interesting article with some parallels with post-independence Vanuatu. You might be interested to read about the Graon mo Jastis Pati, whose leader, Land Minister Ralph Regenvanu, who is undertqking some interesting reforms to prevent effective land alienation in that country.

7:37 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for those fascinating links Jack. I think that Vanuatu has a much better chance than Tonga of salvaging something from pre-capitalist economic and social structures, partly because they have had leaders, like Walter Lini and now the new PM Carilles, who have consciously developed the notion of a Melanesian socialism that builds on pre-capitalist forms. In Tonga socialism seems either a dirty or an incomprehensible word...

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