Tongans mourn king who brought progress, levity

Tongans paid their respects Tuesday to their king of 41 years.

The remote South Pacific nation of Tonga bid farewell to its beloved king of 41 years Tuesday in an elaborate ceremony that drew on centuries of Polynesian pageantry and more than a whiff of British imperial pomp.

A column of soldiers wearing immaculate white pith helmets – a throwback to the island's status as a British protectorate until 1970 – preceded the funeral cortege of the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV who died last week in a New Zealand hospital at age 88.

Once the world's heaviest monarchs with a weight of 440 pounds, it was no surprise that the coffin, resting on a giant wooden platform, was carried by about 200 men, their bodies swaddled in woven grass mourning mats called ta'ovala. Hymn music drifted across the royal tomb enclosure and prayers were read out by the royal chaplain as the king's coffin was gently lowered into a tomb and covered in sand by dozens of barefoot attendants.

"He had a long life and was a very good king," says Valentine Taufa, a health assistant, as she made her way to the funeral. "We feel very sad."

King Tupou IV's rule over the nation known as the Friendly Islands was celebrated as an era in which he brought about progress in education, economic development, and healthcare. The first Tongan to gain a degree, the king was a lay preacher in the Free Wesleyan Methodist Church and took a keen interest in farming.

In later years, however, he proposed a series of increasingly eccentric schemes for making money for his tiny country, from building a fish sausage factory to allowing a toxic waste dump. He also earned the country millions of pounds in the 1980s by selling Tongan passports to foreigners, many of them Hong Kong Chinese.

Most of the money disappeared when the king was conned by an American former magnet salesman whom the king had made the world's only official court jester.

But he was still held in high regard by most ordinary Tongans – an esteem which his successor does not enjoy. The late king's eldest son, who has adopted the name King Siaosi Tupou V, was educated at Oxford, and has the accent and manners of an English aristocrat. He arrived at the start of his father's four-hour funeral in a shiny black London cab, his favored way of traveling around.

The 58-year-old former crown prince's flamboyance has made him unpopular. Fond of wearing a monocle, he lives in a sprawling Italianate villa on a hill outside Nuku'alofa. His extensive business empire – including a telecommunications firm, a brewery, an airline, and an electricity company – has also grated on some Tongans.

Thousands of Tongans marched in the capital last year to protest rising power costs, and public servants went on an unprecedented six-week strike, voicing growing demands for greater democracy.

"If the crown prince had been king last year, I think we would've got rid of the royal family," says Sione Taufa Halangahu, a student who lives in Oakland, Calif. – one of the thousands of Tongans who have sought a better life in the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

But the new king has already defused some criticism by pledging to sell off his businesses. He also appears to be cautiously receptive to demands for political reform in a country where the monarch and nobles appoint two-thirds of MPs.

The new king was credited with persuading his father earlier this year to appoint for the first time a commoner, Fred Sevele, as prime minister.

An early test of his democratic credentials will come with his response to a report on political reforms presented to the monarchy this month.

The report was compiled by his cousin Prince Tuipelahake, a reformist member of the royal family, who was killed in a car accident in California in July while consulting on the reforms with expatriate Tongans.

"We're waiting to see what he'll do as king," said Manu Ulukivaiola, a builder. "We pray for him to lead the development of our country, but only time will tell."

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