Tonga's King Promises Democratic Reforms

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

By PESI FONUA, Associated Press Writer


NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Tonga's king on Thursday promised a more democratic government for his Pacific island nation in the wake of rioting that killed six people and burned about 80 percent of the businesses in the capital city.

King George Tupou V, speaking for the first time since the Nov. 16 riot, said he expected "a more democratic form of Parliament and government" to emerge from reform proposals being discussed in the kingdom.

Tight security, including troops from Australia and New Zealand deployed after the riot, ringed Nuku'alofa as Tupou V addressed closing ceremonies for this year's Parliament that had been delayed by the rioting.

"A few meters away, buildings lie burned, bodies have been retrieved from the ashes and our capital is silent as it has never (been) before," he said.

Officials have said the violence was triggered by anger that the nation's Parliament might finish the year's session without settling plans for reforms giving democratically elected lawmakers a parliamentary majority over legislators appointed by Tupou V.

The government signed off on the reform plan soon after the rioting started, but it still needs to be ratified by Parliament.

Pro-democracy advocates have accused the government of trying to renege on the reform plan _ which would see 21 of 32 lawmakers elected by popular vote by 2008 compared with the current nine.

The king said differences among various plans for reform "are not irreconcilable and can be resolved through dialogue." He urged lawmakers to reach consensus and set a binding timetable for implementation of the plan next year.

Tupou V said the government would shortly announce plans for reconstruction of the downtown area, which he said would cost millions of dollars.

"Our humble city of Nuku'alofa will not be rebuilt in a day. But it will be rebuilt," he said.

Transport Minister Paul Karalus, a royal appointee, accused pro-democracy politicians and businessmen who wanted to damage their rivals of orchestrating the riot.

"His majesty has indicated his wish to restore law and order and particularly to apprehend, investigate and prosecute those (who) perpetrated," the riot, he said.

Tonga, halfway between Australia and Tahiti, has about 108,000 people. Its economy depends on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and cash from Tongans abroad.

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