World : Asia : Tonga

The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled since at least 500 B.C., and local traditions have carefully preserved the names of the Tongan sovereign for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan monarchy reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.

During the 14th century, the King of Tonga delegated much of his temporal power to a brother while retaining the spiritual authority. Sometime later, this process was repeated by the second royal line, thus resulting in three distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i Kanokupolu. The latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.

Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly Islands" because of the gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.

Shortly after Captain Cook's last visit, warfare broke out in the islands as the three lines of kings contended for dominance. At about the same time, young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most eastern island group, the Laus. The first missionaries, attached to the London Missionary Society, arrived in Tonga in 1747. A second missionary group followed in 1822, led by Walter Lawry of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. They converted Taufa'ahau, one of the claimants to the Tu'i Kanokupolu line, and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands.

At the time of his conversion, Taufa'ahau took the name of Siaosi (George) and his consort assumed the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England. In the following years, he united all of the Tongan islands for the first time in recorded history. In 1845, he was formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and the present dynasty was founded. He established a constitution and a parliamentary government based, in some respects, on the British model. In 1862, he abolished the existing system of semi-serfdom and established an entirely alien system of land tenure. Under this system every male Tongan, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to rent--for life and at a nominal fee--a plot of bushland (api) of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eights of an acre for his home.

Tonga concluded a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom in 1900 and came under British protection. It retained its independence and autonomy, while the United Kingdom agreed to handle its foreign affairs and protect it from external attack.

During World War II, in close collaboration with New Zealand, Tonga formed a local defense force of about 2,000 troops that saw action in the Solomon Islands. In addition, New Zealand and U.S. troops were stationed on Tongatapu, which became a staging point for shipping.

A new treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom, signed in 1958 and ratified in May 1959, provided for a British Commissioner and consul in Tonga who were responsible to the Governor of Fiji in his capacity as British Chief Commissioner for Tonga. In mid-1965 the British Commissioner and consul became directly responsible to the U.K. Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs. Tonga became fully independent on June 4, 1970, an event officially designated by the King as Tonga's "reentry into the community of nations."


Tonga’s relatively high level of education has made some Tongans dissatisfied with the current political structure. Insisting that the monarchy in its present form has outlived its time, these Tongans organized a political organization, the Pro-Democracy Movement, in November 1992 and held a prodemocracy convention that same month. It was boycotted by the monarchy and the government refused to allow publicity of the event or grant visas to foreign speakers. The Pro-Democracy Movement formed the People’s Party in 1994, Tonga’s first political party.


Tonga's economy is characterized by a large nonmonetary sector and a heavy dependence on remittances from the half of the country's population that lives abroad, chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Much of the monetary sector of the economy is dominated, if not owned, by the royal family and nobles. This is particularly true of the telecommunications and satellite services. Much of small business, particularly retailing on Tongatapu, is now dominated by recent Chinese immigrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme ended in 1998.

The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very smallscale industries, all of which contribute only about 3% of GDP. Commercial business activities also are inconspicuous and, to a large extent, are dominated by the same large trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened.

Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Coconuts, vanilla beans, and bananas are the major cash crops. The processing of coconuts into copra and desiccated coconut is the only significant industry. Pigs and poultry are the major types of livestock. Horses are kept for draft purposes, primarily by farmers working their api. More cattle are being raised, and beef imports are declining.

Tonga's development plans emphasize a growing private sector, upgrading agricultural productivity, revitalizing the squash and vanilla bean industries, developing tourism, and improving the island's communications and transportation systems. Substantial progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. A small but growing construction sector is developing in response to the inflow of aid monies and remittances from Tongans abroad. The copra industry is plagued by world prices that have been depressed for years.

Efforts are being made to discover ways to diversify. One hope is seen in fisheries; tests have shown that sufficient skipjack tuna pass through Tongan waters to support a fishing industry. Another potential development activity is exploitation of forests, which cover 35% of the kingdom's land area but are decreasing as land is cleared. Coconut trees past their prime bearing years also provide a potential source of lumber.

The tourist industry is relatively undeveloped; however, the government recognizes that tourism can play a major role in economic development, and efforts are being made to increase this source of revenue. Cruise ships often stop in Nuku'alofa and Vava'u.


Tonga ‘s main religions are Wesleyan Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and Mormon.


The crime rate in Tonga is low compared to industrialized countries, with the important exception of murder. An analysis was done using INTERPOL data for Tonga. For purpose of comparison, data were drawn for the seven offenses used to compute the United States FBI's index of crime. Index offenses include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The combined total of these offenses constitutes the Index used for trend calculation purposes. Tonga will be compared with Japan (country with a low crime rate) and USA (country with a high crime rate). According to the INTERPOL data, for murder, the rate in 1999 was 1.05 per 100,000 population for Tonga, 1.00 for Japan, and 4.55 for USA. For rape, the rate in 1999 was 2.11 for Tonga, compared with 1.47 for Japan and 32.05 for USA. For robbery, the rate in 1999 was 15.81 for Tonga, 3.34 for Japan, and 147.36 for USA. For aggravated assault, the rate in 1999 was 108.54 for Tonga, 15.97 for Japan, and 329.63 for USA. For burglary, the rate in 1999 was 541.65 for Tonga, 206.01 for Japan, and 755.29 for USA. The rate of larceny for 1999 was 5.27 for Tonga, 1267.95 for Japan, and 2502.66 for USA. The rate for motor vehicle theft in 1999 was 14.75 for Tonga, compared with 34.01 for Japan and 412.70 for USA. The rate for all index offenses combined was 689.18 for Tonga, compared with 1529.75 for Japan and 4184.24 for USA. (Note: data were not reported to INTERPOL by the USA for 1999, but were derived from data reported to the United Nations for 1999)


Between 1995 and 1999, according to INTERPOL data, the rate of murder decreased from 2.06 to 1.05 per 100,000 population, a decrease of 49.0%. The rate for rape increased from 1.18 to 2.11, an increase of 78.8%. The rate of robbery increased from 4.12 to 15.81, an increase of 283.7%. The rate for aggravated assault decreased from 447.42 to 108.54, a decrease of 75.7%. The rate for burglary increased from 325.77 to 541.65, an increase of 66.2%. The rate of larceny decreased from 749.48 to 5.27, a decrease of 99.3%. No motor vehicle thefts were reported in 1995 so a trend analysis could not be done. The rate of total index offenses decreased from 1530.03 to 689.18, a decrease of 55.0%.


The police force is composed of approximately 400 officers under the control of the Minister of Police and Prisons. Incidents of bribe-taking and other forms of corruption reportedly occurred.

The Tonga Defense Service (TDS) is a 400-person force. The force is comprised of a headquarters platoon and a light infantry company. A coastal naval unit of four small patrol boats and amphibious landing craft operate as a component of the TDS. The force's mission is to assist in maintenance of public order, to patrol coastal waters and fishing zones, and to engage in civic action and national development projects. The main base of operations is the capital, Nuku'alofa.

The TDS is partially supported by defense cooperation agreements with both Australia and New Zealand, which support the TDS with small in-country detachments of military technicians. The United States military provides training to the TDS and conducts humanitarian civic action projects in Tonga. In 2002, TDS soldiers were deployed as part of a multi-national regional peacekeeping force in the Solomon Islands. In June 2004, Tonga sent a unit of 45 troops to Iraq as peacekeepers.


The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions. The Constitution provides for the right to judicial determination of the legality of arrest, and this was observed in practice. There are no statutory limits on the length of time a suspect may be held prior to being charged. There were no reports of preventative detention or other lengthy pretrial detention. The law permitted unlimited access by counsel and family members to detained persons; however, there reportedly were instances in which detainees were denied legal counsel.

The police force is comprised of approximately 400 officers under the control of the Minister of Police. Incidents of bribe-taking and other forms of corruption occurred during the year. Allegations of corruption were made against the Minister of Police in the press, but no charges were brought against him by year's end. The Minister sued the newspaper Taimi 'o Tonga (Times of Tonga) for defamation; the case was pending at year's end (see Section 2.a.). The Government took no steps to reform the police during the year.

The Constitution and law do not prohibit forced exile, but the Government did not employ it in practice. The last case of forced exile was in 1886.


The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respected this provision in practice. The judiciary generally provided citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. The judiciary, whose highest-ranking judges historically have been foreign nationals, was generally independent but was on occasion subject to royal influence. Judges held office "during good behavior" and otherwise could not be dismissed during their terms.

The court system consists of the Supreme Court (which has original jurisdiction over all major cases), the police magistrates' courts, a general court, a court martial for the TDS, a court tribunal for the police force, and a court of review for the Inland Revenue Department. The Court of Appeals is the highest court. The King's Privy Council presides over cases relating to disputes over titles of nobility and estate boundaries. The King has the right to commute death sentences in cases of murder or treason.

The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. A court may not summon anyone without providing a written indictment stating the charges. Defendants are presumed innocent, are entitled to counsel, have a right of appeal, and are entitled to bail; lawyers have free access to defendants.


Prison conditions were Spartan but reflected local living standards. There were separate facilities for pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners, men and women, and adults and juveniles. Church representatives and family members were permitted to visit prisoners. No nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to monitor prison conditions, and the permissibility of such visits has not arisen.


Societal violence against women seldom was publicized, but it was a growing problem. Incidents of domestic violence generally were addressed in traditional ways within families or by village elders. Such abuse seldom was reported to the police. Domestic violence could be prosecuted under laws against physical assault. Abused wives sometimes returned to their families if mediation failed. There were shelters for abused and troubled women, most church affiliated, and the Free Wesleyan Church ran a hotline for women in trouble.

Rape is punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to 15 years. However, the law does not recognize spousal rape and specifically states that carnal intercourse by a man and his wife shall not under any circumstance be deemed rape.

Prostitution per se is not illegal, but activities such as soliciting in a public place, pimping, operating a brothel, and trading in women are criminal offenses. Sexual harassment, as such, is not a crime, but physical sexual assault could be prosecuted as indecent assault.

Women held several significant posts in government, including Secretary to Cabinet in the Prime Minister's Office and Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Women also headed the Office of Crown Law and the Government Central Planning Office. The majority of commissioned officers in the police force were women. For a woman to rise to a position of leadership, she usually needed the support of the nobility. The King's mother reigned for 46 years, and a royal princess was one of the country's most prominent businesspersons. Some female commoners held senior leadership positions in business.

Inheritance laws, especially those concerned with land, discriminated against women. Women could lease but not own land. Under the inheritance laws, the claim to a father's estate by a male child born out of wedlock took precedence over the claim of the deceased's widow or daughter.

The Women and Development Center (formerly the Women's Affairs Unit) in the Prime Minister's Office was established in 1993. Although some NGOs initially viewed this unit with suspicion, it appeared to be functioning cooperatively with them. Its objectives included the promotion of full and equal participation of men, women, and children in economic, social, and cultural development, and the enhancement of women's economic status and role in the national economy. However, many young, educated women still considered the unit ineffective. A government-sponsored National Council of Women conducted training workshops, mainly in rural areas, and contributed to women's social and economic needs.

The Center for Women and Children, an NGO under the auspices of the Catholic Church, focused on domestic abuse and improving the economic and social conditions of women and offered counseling to women in crisis. During the year, the Center worked to raise funds to establish the country's first safehouse for battered women.


The Government was committed to children's human rights and welfare and provided commensurate funding for children's welfare given available resources. Education was compulsory from ages 6 to 14. Although sometimes criticized as being of poor quality, education was available for all children through Form 6 (high school). Almost all children attended school.

The Government provided free basic medical care to children. Child abuse was rare, and the extended family generally participated in child rearing.


While the law does not specifically address trafficking in persons, violators could be prosecuted under anti-slavery statutes. There were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.


The greatest impediments to effective narcotics enforcement in Tonga are their outdated laws and inexperienced and under-trained police. Tonga has passed money-laundering legislation that deals specifically with proceeds from narcotics-related crimes. Tonga has laws permitting controlled deliveries of drugs for investigative purposes, although the ability of both local police forces to conduct such operations is limited. They do not have the training, personnel, or equipment to conduct the surveillance that would be part of a controlled delivery. Tonga laws require the police to prosecute only based on the amount allowed to remain in the controlled delivery and not the original amount of drugs.


Internet research assisted by Andrea Mick

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