Known to English speakers as George Tupou V, the king inherited a febrile atmosphere on the death in 2006 of his father, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, who had steadfastly resisted constitutional reform for 41 years. With an elite appointed by royal decree securing large chunks of the country’s wealth, resentment had grown among many amongst Tonga’s disfranchised poor.
Within two months of Tupou IV’s death, mobs set parts of the capital Nuku’alofa ablaze and looted cars and shops. Eight people died in rioting which was widely blamed on the slow pace of democratic reform. Such was the impact of the violence that the new king delayed his coronation ceremony, calling instead for a rebuilding of “mutual responsibility”.
It was not until late July 2008 that the framework for the transfer of power to a democratically elected parliament had been established. Though the royal house still retained some ceremonial authority (such as the power to commute sentences) Tonga had in effect become a constitutional, rather than absolute, monarchy. Three days later, on August 1, Siaosi Tupou was finally crowned king at an elaborate five day ceremony attended by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Earlier, in a traditional ceremony, his sovereignty over Tonga’s 170 islands was recognised by 200 nobles, who slaughtered pigs and offered kava, a hallucinogenic drink, in his honour.
He was born on May 4 1948, the eldest son of Taufa’ahau Tupou IV and Queen Halaevalu Mata’aho. Respect for the king his father was drummed into him from an early age. “We were always encouraged not to be beastly children and not to misbehave in public,” he said later.