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20 Sep 2019 9:46
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  •   Home > News > International

    Tonga's Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva dies aged 78

    Tonga's Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva, a longtime advocate for democracy, has died in a New Zealand hospital after being medically evacuated yesterday.

    Tonga's Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva has died at the age of 78.

    Mr Pohiva was medically evacuated from the capital, Nuku'alofa, yesterday afternoon to a hospital in Auckland, New Zealand.

    He died at 10:00am (Tongan time) at the Auckland City Hospital, an adviser to the Prime Minister said in a statement.

    Mr Pohiva had been suffering from pneumonia for two weeks and had received treatment for liver problems earlier this year, a statement from Tonga's Government said.

    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted he was saddened to hear of Mr Pohiva's passing, who he described as a "passionate advocate for his people".

    Also writing on Twitter, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Mr Pohiva was "a respected leader in the Pacific, and a good friend to Australia".

    Mr Pohiva had served as Tonga's Prime Minister since 2014, and was Tonga's longest serving member of Parliament, coming into office in 1987.

    He spent years campaigning against royal involvement in the island kingdom's politics, and in 2014 became the first commoner to be elected Prime Minister by Tonga's Parliament.

    Local media are reporting Tonga's Parliament will be deferred indefinitely.

    Mr Pohiva last month attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, where he was reportedly moved to tears by a presentation from climate change activists.

    Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the "raw emotion" Mr Pohiva expressed during the summit was inspiring.

    A complicated legacy

    Once described as the Nelson Mandela of the Pacific, Mr Pohiva was jailed in 1996 for contempt of Parliament, and charged with sedition in the wake of the pro-democracy riots that left the capital Nuku'alofa badly damaged in 2006.

    Tongan publisher Kalafi Moala knew Mr Pohiva since the 1980s when he spearheaded the pro-democracy movement in the Kingdom, and worked as his media adviser when he became Prime Minister.

    "He played a key role in the political development of our nation," Mr Moala told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

    "He pioneered the questioning of those in authority … he raised questions that no-one had ever raised before."

    Mr Moala said Mr Pohiva was the best opposition leader the country had seen, but he was less effective as Prime Minister.

    "He promised that there was going to be reform, he promised to be able to fight corruption, he promised that there would be good governance, that there would be transparency, the maintenance of a free press in Tonga," he said.

    "The complaint in Tonga is that very few, if any, of the promises he made came into being."

    Clashes with the monarchy

    Tonga's Parliament and Cabinet was once stacked with appointees of the King, a situation that persisted until constitutional reforms in 2010.

    "Pohiva was really one of the leaders of the movement to give greater say to the public, and to the parliamentary and democratic process," Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program, told the ABC.

    "It is a sad day for Tonga, and he was a real pillar and stalwart of the long-fought democratic movement in Tonga."

    After becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Mr Pohiva continued to have conflicts with the monarchy and noble lords who still make up a minority in the country's 25-member Parliament.

    King Tupou VI dissolved the Parliament in 2017, one year ahead of schedule, amid efforts from Mr Pohiva to further limit the power of the King and his advisers in the Privy Council.

    Mr Pohiva's party went on to win the subsequent elections, and he retained his position as Prime Minister.

    Before becoming a member of parliament, Mr Pohiva taught history and sociology at the Tongan campus of the University of South Pacific.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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