‘Akilisi Pōhiva saved Tonga even before he became Prime Minister, veteran Pacific affairs journalist Michael Field said today.
But he warned that Pōhiva’s democratic reforms could unravel and that dangerous times lay ahead for the kingdom.
In 2010 Field, who is writing a book on the late Tongan leader, said it would be unwise for Pōhiva to become Prime Minister because he was more revolutionary than leader.
In his book Swimming with Sharks he said: “Sadly, I’ve been proven right; at 76 he has proven to be a mess. He was performed in much the same way that the inept and hopeless royal governments before him did. My sense is that many Tongans – nobles and commoners – have realised this too. “
However, when he died, Field described him as “remarkable.”
Speaking to Kaniva News, Field said he saw “no problem between the mess and his remarkableness.”
“When my book came out in 2010 ‘Akilisi took me on over the remarks I had made. I was impressed, at the time, to think he had even read it, but in the last couple of years I realise he was a well-read person with a wide range of interests.
“I stand by my original claim in 2010 that the premiership ended up as a mess. What I did not know, but know now extensively, is how disruptive the anti-democratic forces have been on Tongan governance.
“‘Akilisi’s inability to get audiences with the king, and the subsequent refusal by the king to sign the six bills has been enormously disruptive. That said, I strongly believe that ‘Akilisi’s finest and most useful work was as the leader of a movement which happened to be in opposition for much of his political life.
“In many ways, even before he had become Prime Minister, he had saved Tonga. I will leave the argument for why until the book’s publication.
“As for calling him ‘remarkable,’ I totally stand by that: I’ve known most of the Pacific leadership since 1975, and there was no one quite like him.
“In chatting with ‘Akilisi I learnt a great deal about him and how unusual he was. I also realised that in all the years covering him as a journalist (and I went right back to the beginning, that first poll) I had only got to know that one side of him.
“Sadly I don’t speak Tongan, but I came to appreciate that the ‘Akilisi in Tongan was different to the ‘Akilisi in English. It was something of a revelation for me”.
Reforms in danger
Field said he feared that Tonga’s democratic reforms would stall under this current king.
“I think Tonga is entering dangerous times and people should be paying careful attention.
“It should be noted that the causes and reasons for the Nuku’alofa riots are still only partially understood. What that means is, I believe, that they could happen again.”
While Pōhiva was a champion of democracy he was accused by his enemies of corruption and sometimes seemed to have laid himself open to charges of behaving in erratic and not entirely democratic ways.
However, Field said many leaders could be accused of being erratic for a variety of reasons.
“The first Prime Minister I worked for used to go to events without shoes and could not use a phone, but he was brilliant all the same,” the veteran journalist said.
“People who go into politics full-time are different to the rest of us.”
Field said he did not think Pōhiva was anti-democratic, but said Tonga had the unique problem that for most of its modern life been it had been ruled by non-democratic forces.
“I didn’t see corruption in him and I must say the various accusations, when details are provided, seem, if not trivial, then rather vague,” he said.
“It has to be recalled that most of Pōhiva’s political life was played out, endlessly, in court rooms where specific and explicit claims could have been made”
Field said what he termed the ‘feisty’ relationship between Pōhiva and the Tongan media was far from unique.
“Of course his whole political career began as a TBC broadcaster – and then a fired one,” Field said.
“The relationship with the media is a curious one, because ‘Akilisi really thought of himself, via Kele’a newspaper, as part of the media.
“He was always quite proud of getting scoops and he got a few.”
Field said Pōhiva’s entire life was one of intense struggle.
“I was quite struck by the enormous amount of work he took on, even in primary school,” he said.
“My sadness, as an observer and writer, is that he was among the many Pacific leaders who died in office I never said it to ‘Akilisi, but I did on other occasions to other politicians, point out the merits of retiring to enjoy life with the grandchildren, at the beach or somewhere, but Pōhiva and all the others, seem driven by their politics.”
Field’s previous books include Speight of Violence on Fiji’s 2000 coup and Swimming with Sharks, a collection of tales of the Pacific. His book The Catch investigated the scandal of the global and New Zealand fishing fleets.
He was banned from Tonga for exposing corruption in the Tongan royal family, implicating King Taufa’āhau Tupou IV who died in 2006, his successor, King George V who died in 2012 and Princess Pilolevu who was the subject of an intense legal battle with Pōhiva.
As reported in Kaniva News, in August 2018, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen of Tonga’s Supreme Court described the legal battle over the transfer of millions of dollars of Chinese money to Princess Pilolevu’s Tongasat company as a case of “national importance.” He said the Chinese money should never have gone to Tongasat.
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