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The Kingdom of Tonga consists of four groups of low-lying islands, thirty-six of which are inhabited.

Unusually in the Pacific, Tonga was never a colony though its traditional social structure was much influenced by Britain in the nineteenth century, resulting in a formal land tenure system, a hereditary monarchy and the dominance of Methodism. In recent years there has been tension between proponents of democracy and those who prefer the status quo, where only a third of members of parliament are democratically elected, with the rest being nobles or appointees of the king. In 1996 two journalists and a member of parliament were jailed for twenty-six days for ‘contempt of parliament’ and were declared ‘prisoners of conscience’ by Amnesty International, and there have many demonstrations and subsequent arrests, including the jailing of the leader of the Pro-Democracy Movement, Akilisi Pohiva. In 2003 a Newspaper Act was introduced to limit press freedom, resulting in New Zealand threatening to review is relationship with Tonga. The Tonga Times, published in New Zealand, has been repeatedly confiscated by the government. During the 1990s the People’s Party, formed in 1994 to press for greater democracy, gradually acquired more parliamentary seats, and in 2006 the first commoner, Dr Feleti Sevele, was appointed Prime Minister.

Main languages: Tongan, English

Main religions: Christianity (Free Wesleyan, Roman Catholicism, Mormon and Tokakailo)

Tongans are Polynesians, and the population is relatively homogeneous.

Tonga remains a constitutional monarchy and the king exercises considerable influence; nobles also have enormous political and economic power and Tonga is probably the most stratified contemporary Polynesian society. Cabinet ministers are appointed for life by the King. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died in September 2006, after a 41year rule. The accession to the throne of the new monarch, King Siaosi (George) Tupou V, was initially greeted with optimism after the King announced he would sell off his business interests and introduce constitutional reforms. But a major riot on 16 November 2006 following a peaceful pro-democracy rally destroyed much of the central business district of the capital Nuku’alofa.

The Tongan economy is predominantly agricultural but remittances from Tongans overseas are the most important element of the national economy, making up over 31 per cent of GDP (2005). Because of substantial emigration, so that half of all Tongans live overseas, the population has remained more or less stable over the past two decades. However high levels of unemployment and rising public expenditure are concerns.

Immigration is discouraged and the Tongan-born children of aliens are required to leave the country at the age of 21. However, passports have been sold to aliens, and a number of these, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan, have settled in Tonga and established businesses there. Migrant populations have few political rights, and migrants, including passport holders, are unwelcome.

Minority based and advocacy organisations

Sources and further reading