Tonga's fiery rebellion
By Angela Gregory and Kenny Rodger
Every night in a small Tongan park, graffiti scrawled on a concrete rotunda is whitewashed over, and every morning it is painted back. "Evil is governing those governing us" it reads. The shady reserve, Pangai Si'i, is where hundreds of striking civil servants and supporters meet each day in a show of solidarity for their cause.
Speeches are made, food is eaten, kava is drunk and dances break out. Gossip is shared about the country's royal family, and rumours circulate about what might happen next.
The Weekend Herald hears stories of how vehicles will be driven on to the airport runway, significant buildings will be torched, and even guns may be produced. These stories are not, however, the wishes of those on strike.
The teachers, education officers, nurses, doctors and workers are not overnight revolutionaries - far from it. They call for peaceful means to their ends.
It is the criminal underbelly, those deported back to Tonga from countries such as the United States and New Zealand, to whom the rumours are attributed. One former convict animatedly told a newspaper photographer about the planned torching that night of the Prime Minister's office. It never eventuated.
There have been arsons - most spectacularly this week's razing of the King's beach house - and attempts to burn down a school in the outer island group of Vava'u. On Tongatapu Island the week before, four Government cars were torched but no one was caught.
The only arrests were those of some school students who trashed rooms in Tonga College and smashed the windows of two Ministry of Education cars after learning their principal had been transferred to another role after supporting the strike.
More than 1000, some say up to 3000, civil servants have been on strike for five weeks seeking pay rises of between 60 and 80 per cent.
Mostly teachers, they are upset about the introduction last month of a new salary structure for the public service, part of an extensive Government reform of the public sector.
The civil servants feel they have not been consulted about the pay reviews and are angry that while ministry chief executives are enjoying salary increases of close to 100 per cent, many of them have received nothing or next to nothing.
One of those on strike is Dr Ana Akavola, usually in charge of radiology at Vaiola Hospital. She walked off the job two weeks ago, not because she was unhappy about her 28 per cent salary increase from 22,000 paanga ($16,000) to 28,000 paanga ($20,700) but because others got nothing. "The biggest increase in my department was 8 per cent."
Akavola said while only four hospital doctors were on strike many others supported their stand. She said 84 nurses and midwives were on strike - more than half of the nursing staff - and the hospital was having to rely on student nurses. "We are prepared to stick it out until we get a result. We are determined."
The huge pay increases to Government ministers - understood to be on about 100,000 paanga ($74,000) - was nothing less than corruption, she said. "It is corruption to accept for themselves big rises and say to the rest of the civil servants there is no money. How dare they do that?"
Ministry of Works cleaner Sione Tupou makes his point by pointing to his large, calloused feet. Through a translator he demands, "Look at my feet - no shoes, I can't afford shoes".
Tupou earns 73 paanga ($54) a fortnight cleaning government buildings. He says the worst part of his job is cleaning the toilets.
He wants an 80 per cent pay rise and better working conditions. He indicates a spot just above his wrists where he says his protective gloves just reach. He wants longer gloves to protect him from disease.
With six children and a wife to support, Tupou struggles on his wages. He has worked as a cleaner for 23 years but is now paid less than the young people he has trained.
Tupou is determined to stay on strike as long as it takes but, like everyone on both sides, has no idea how long that will be. "I don't know about tomorrow, only God knows," he says, as he makes the shape of a gun with his fingers.
The main "victims" of the strike so far are the thousands of school children who have missed classes.
Ativeniana Pomana is principal of Tonga's largest school, Nuku'alofa Primary School. She is on strike but her school remains open. She understands that of the 885 enrolled pupils fewer than 100 are turning up.
Ema Latu, a primary school teacher at Kolovai School, in a western suburb of Nuku'alofa where the Prime Minister lives, has been teaching for 26 years. For the past decade she has been the general secretary of the Tonga Teachers' Association and says teachers are not paid enough.
It was important to educate the teachers about why they had to take their first industrial action, and 90 per cent of the government teachers were on strike, she said.
Parents were supportive, even in the rural areas, as their understanding of the underlying issues grew, she said. "Twenty years ago rural people were very primitive, committed to tradition, but now they are more aware."
The interim strike committee chairman, Finau Tutone, said dissatisfaction among civil servants had been building for ages. "They are depressed and oppressed. It is time to wake up - now or never."
Tutone said the main issue was the claim for 60-80 per cent wage increases for all civil servants, and he was confident they would get those results because of their solidarity.
Already they have made progress. The Government has agreed the strikers will not be punished when they return to work.
They have also guaranteed the teachers will be paid for the first two weeks they were on strike when the Government reacted by bringing forward school holidays.
"But we are going to propose they get paid for the whole time they are on strike because it's the Government's fault," he adds, optimistically.
Editor Pesi Fonua agrees the Government has made a mess of things. Fonua, who runs the respected online Matangi Tonga news site, said the Government had been putting aside problems in Tonga and ignoring the pleas for democracy for years. "You can't do economic reform in the absence of political reform. The two go together and have to be solved together."
Fonua said the Government failed to properly consult its workers about the Economic and Public Sector Reform Programme it launched in April 2002. The main thrust of the programme was to downsize the public service, identifying "dead wood" and privatising some services.
The salary revision was an important part of the reform but many felt uncomfortable about the process. "I agree with the reform programme but there has been a problem with its implementation. The people on strike got a shock when the new salaries came into force. Some have done well but some very badly."
Money was important to Tongans in a way it wasn't 20 years ago as there was a relatively late transition from a subsistence economy to a cash economy, he said. "Until about the past 15 years they had never been so dependent on a cash income."
Fonua said electricity was supplied to the whole of Tongatapu Island only in the mid-1990s and villagers then bought fridges, televisions, washing machines. As a result, they then ended up with power bills.
Many previously got by through living simply and growing their own food. "But life has changed for Tonga. It's a different world now, all money now. With the influx of Western life, expectations change."
Fonua said the strikers came up with the 60-80 per cent figure at the start, and have stuck with it. "For me, the strike is good for Tonga, something to rally around." But the strike had also become overly complicated, he said.
"The strikers have bundled together a lot of dissatisfaction going back some years. They have put the whole of the country's problems in one bag."
They needed to disentangle the grievances and identify them clearly. "They don't know how to negotiate. For weeks they have been saying the same thing."
Government spokesman and Cabinet minister Akauola concedes a poor job has been done of selling the salary package. It had been hoped by sorting out the ministry chief executives' pay scales first that they would then consult those further down the chain. "There has been failure on part of the Government to get its motives understood."
Akauola said that was why it agreed to get help from the New Zealand team of negotiators, the Pacific Forum secretariat and an Australian auditor.
But he warned that "Tongans were always known for great depths of bloody-mindedness".
The Government had set up an independent body to revise salaries, Akauola said. In July 2003, it put chief executives on two- to three-year contracts and cut some perks. In compensation, they received up to 100 per cent pay rises, taking their annual salaries to 40,000 paanga ($29,000).
Akauola said the people felt aggrieved when it became obvious 400 out of 4500 workers would not get a pay rise, while Cabinet ministers received increases of 75 per cent.
The Government offered the strikers up to 30 per cent increases, which was rejected, he said. It could not afford the 60-80 per cent increase the strikers wanted. "It's not just about finding the money now but in successive years."
Akauola was concerned about the effect on inflation and said those sorts of increases would cost 35.6 million paanga ($26.1 million), while the Government had budgeted only an extra 7.1 million paanga ($5.2 million) for pay rises.
Public service salaries accounted for 53 per cent of the country's revenue and the strikers' proposals would see that rise to 76 per cent, leaving little for services, he said. "The whole purpose of the reforms was for a leaner, more efficient public service."
But when asked how long it was since civil servants had a pay rise, Akauola said without blinking that it was in 1986, and that inflation had run "pretty high" since then, though it recently dropped from 12 per cent to 8 per cent.
Akauola said the Government intended to set up a system for an annual cost-of-living adjustment from next July. It also needed to identify a minimum living wage.
While the impasse continues the strikers get by with the help from a lot of friends.
Farmers donate potatoes, cassava, lettuces and cabbages, and local businesses and families donate cash. Money is also sent from Tongans living overseas, and financial support has come from unions in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
There is also spiritual sustenance. Reverend Simote Vea, general secretary of the Tonga Council of Churches, said ministers were providing a pastoral presence and in some cases supporting the strike in their sermons. "They are more openly talking about political issues than before. It used to be a kind of taboo."
Reconciliation and the resolution of the strike were a major praying theme, he said. Vea even heard that, in an unusual step, the minister at the royal family's Free Wesleyan Church told Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho she could have had more influence on her children, one of whom is the Prime Minister.
The Queen left, uncomfortable at being made to face up in a public gathering, he said. "It was embarrassing for her to stay."
Who's who in Tonga
* King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, 87
Reportedly the world's heaviest monarch, the Australian-educated King is a lawyer who inherited the throne from his mother Queen Salote in 1965. He announced Tonga's independence from Britain in 1970 and has been at the centre of innumerable scandals, including selling Tongan passports on the Asian black market. Personally appoints entire Government, Privy Council and Supreme Court.
* Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho 'Ahome'e, 79
Daughter of Tongan nobles, the Queen attended St Mary's Convent, Auckland, before returning home to marry into the Royal family at the age of 21. She has travelled the world addressing conferences on women's rights, and reportedly funds disabled-care facilities in Tonga from her own pocket.
* Crown Prince Tupouto'a Tuku'aho, 57
Old-fashioned jetsetting playboy and heir to the throne, who is chauffeured around Nuku'alofa in a specially imported London taxi. In 2000, he tried to sell Tongans' DNA to an Australian biotech company for genetic research and pharmaceutical development, but backed down after a public outcry.
* Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuku'aho, 55
When not vying with her older brother for succession to the throne, the princess enjoys the enormous wealth of her Hong Kong-based business empire, which she launched by taking personal control of Tonga's government-owned geostationary satellite slots.
* Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, 46
Became Prime Minister for life in 2000 after serving as minister for aviation, defence, communications and fisheries. The Prince, who regularly attacks immigrant Chinese businesspeople for "exploiting" indigenous Tongans, studied international relations and defence at Australian universities and the US Naval War College. Last year he tried to ban the Times of Tonga newspaper.
Finally the people of Tonga have had enough. After years of corruption by the ruling monachy, the latest round of wage increases for a small group of government workers close to the King and his court has prompted calls for equity across the board, and also, seemingly as an after thought, universal sufferage.
Its a shame that its come to this, as too many Pacific nations have descended into the misery of civil war after throwing off the shackles of a corrupt or unpopular regieme. If only the King had been prepared to compromise