The Tongan riot of 2006
This was an article I wrote for a publication that never appeared, that was provisionally called Hobgoblin, a sort of prol-position for the Pacific and Asia. Other articles from that proposed magazine have appeared on this blog, such as SuperSizeMyPay and the Progressive Lockout. The Tongan riot article then was published in an anarchist magazine called Imminent Rebellion in 2008. Looking back on this piece, I think I would re-write lots of it if I had the chance, namely:
- I think my understanding of traditional Tongan culture needed much more work and needs to draw upon the comparative work of Patrick Kirch and others in Polynesia for a greater understanding of the hierarchical nature of Tongan society, but also its communal and co-operative nature, and to see Tongan society as complex, rather than statically based on traditional stratifications.
- I think I’d put this piece in more of an international context, and relate it to international trends more. And have more material on class composition and recomposition in Tonga.
- After a fantastic and stimulating visit and public talk from a fellow who is involved in Gongchao in China, I realise I downplayed the anti-Chinese aspect of the riots. He said resentment is commonplace in many parts of Asia, the Pacific and Africa against recent Chinese small-business migrants. For example, there have been huge anti-Chinese riots in Papua New Guinea in 2009 involving tens of thousands of people in Port Moresby and Lae. I didn’t really explain why so many resent these recent migrants and small-business capitalists. Though some of the points I make were valid based on the evidence I had at hand at the time, and certainly the media’s portrayal of the riots as race riots was simplistic. I think that the riots were still class-based.
- I’d rewrite the analysis of looting in this piece to make it more nuanced, so that people couldn’t interpret it as being supportive of the sort of naive and impratical politics of insurrectionary immediatism that was fashionable in some anarchist circles and scenes at the time in 2008 i.e. those influenced by the crude, watered-down semi-situationism of Crimethinc and Invisible Committee (of The Coming Insurrection fame – click to read a critical review). Of course, not all riots are insurrectionary, or lead to deepening and widening of class-struggle. But I think to a large extent the analysis of looting put forward here has been confirmed by what happened during the UK riots of 2011 – against those from the left, including anarchists, who condemned the looters as anti-working class people who just wanted to burn people’s houses down and beat up passers-by. See these articles for further analysis (‘An open letter to those who condemn looting’ from Socialism and/or Barbarism part 1 part 2). Also see some other articles, such as an Aufheben guest article, ‘Communities, Commodities and Class’, Blaumachen ‘The era of riots‘, Ricardo Reis ‘The August 2011 riots in Britain: An analysis, Howard Slater in Mute magazine, ‘The Savage and the Beyond‘ and the Khalid Qureshi Foundation and Chelsea Ives Youth Centre, Riot Polit-Econ. Of course, I don’t agree with everything that is said in these articles, but they are generally stimulating and thought-provoking, and attempt to go beyond surface appearances and explore connections between the looting/riots and class, communism, community, commodities, and cultural rebellion.
- Finally, as an update, it appears that class-struggle has not taken off in the Pacific – there is still the odd general strike in Tahiti, and big strikes in New Caledonia/Kanaky, and some simmering anti-colonialist rebellion in Rapa Nui/Easter Island, and ethnic conflict in the Solomons, and so on, but overall it seemed this particular wave of struggle that this riot was part of in the Pacific has peaked. I’m not sure of the current situation in Tonga, and how people have coped with the repression that followed – see the short documentary done soon after the riots occurred by some visiting NZ indymedia journos called The Nu Face of Rebellion – but it seems that things have quietened down a lot. But I see that the recent death of King Tupou V and the coronation of the new king has created fears that the extravagance of the funeral and coronation has bankrupted Tonga!
”If a boat ends up on a reef
you don’t blame the reef;
you don’t blame the boat;
you don’t blame the wind;
you don’t blame the waves;
you blame the captain.”
On Thursday 16 November 2006, riots erupted in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the tiny kingdom of Tonga. Tonga is an archipelago of 170 islands in the South Pacific, about 3,000km northeast of Sydney and 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand/Aotearoa. After a pro-democracy march ended outside parliament, an irate crowd of possibly 2,000-3,000 took to the streets. As they rampaged through town, they tipped over cars, attacked government buildings, smashed windows, looted businesses and then set them alight. Many people who weren’t at the demonstration joined the riot. Amidst the stores, offices and hotels engulfed in flames, the looting gleefully continued. Beaming youngsters darted in and out of stores laden with looted boxes and sacks of goods as blinding waves of fire fell onto the road. For many Tongans, it was like a Christmas give-away bonanza that had come early. By the night’s end, the mob had burnt down a remarkable 80% of the Central Business District of Nuku’alofa. Six people were dead, and millions of Pa’anga (the currency of Tonga) damage had been done.
Police stood by, powerless. The cops even asked looters for candles because of a power blackout! However, as the flames became too intense, the looters dispersed, and the government slowly regained control. The government granted itself tough emergency powers. The CBD was cordoned off. Armed cops and soldiers from the Tongan Defence Force patrolled the streets, indiscriminately arresting youth. The Tongan government, fearing that it was facing a revolution, quickly requested armed assistance from Australia and New Zealand to quell its unruly subjects. And so over 150 Australian and New Zealand troops and cops were flown in by their respective governments. After a few weeks, over 570 people were arrested, most of whom were beaten by soldiers and police.
This article looks at the riot itself. It looks at the background to the riot (particularly the massive strike by government workers in 2005), the causes of the riot, the targets of the rioters, and whether it was a class riot or a race riot. Most leftist publications covering the Tongan riots focus on capital’s and the state’s response to the riots, and tend to overlook the actual activity of the exploited class in Tonga. Perhaps this is because they don’t see much radical potential in riots.
This piece doesn’t examine why Australia and New Zealand sent in troops to crush the resistance, nor why they have “intervened” in the wider Pacific (both governments have also sent in troops to the Solomon Islands and East Timor). As well, I don’t examine at the increasingly important imperialist rivalry for control of the markets, resources and populations of the South Pacific between China, Taiwan, the US and Australia/New Zealand (often representing US interests, but not always; sometimes they pursue their own agenda in the Pacific). I recognise these imperialist aspects are essential to a broader understanding of Tonga and the Pacific, yet this isn’t the purpose of this article. This doesn’t mean I support Australian and New Zealand imperialism (or any other form of imperialism), also known as “peacekeeping”, in the Pacific.
The main question that I explore in this article is whether the riot was a class riot or an anti-monarchy riot. The riot occurred just after the government, which is run by the King of Tonga, announced the stalling of democratic reform. People attending a pro-democracy rally were outraged, and went off and trashed government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy as a result. This strongly suggests, given the limited information available as to the actual motives of the rioters, that the riot was a “pro-democracy” affair. By pro-democracy, I don’t mean direct democracy, such as that of workers’ councils. Instead, I mean representative, parliamentary democracy.
Yet, on closer examination, the riot can’t be reduced to an episode in the ongoing struggle in Tonga between the rising urban capitalist class, who support representative democracy, and the traditional aristocracy, who wish to retain the monarchy. The riot expressed the class rage of many “commoner” Tongans who’ve been impoverished by years of neoliberal reform and oppressed by centuries of authoritarian rule. They’ve been enraged by how the Tongan “royal” family and aristocracy have greatly enriched themselves through privatisation. The riot had some limited anti-capitalist content, especially in the joyful practise of proletarian shopping (also known as looting). The co-operation between thousands of rioters to carry out such a mass shopping expedition is a form of class-based self-organisation or self-activity. The rioters acted for themselves, rather than waiting for representatives to act for them.
Some have claimed the riot was a race riot against recent Chinese immigrants, who dominate the small business sector in Tonga. While the rioters did loot and burn many Chinese businesses, they also burnt down most businesses in Nuku’alofa, regardless of who owned them. Rioters initially targeted government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy rather than Chinese owned stores. Hence the riot can’t be called a race riot.
Background: Feudalism, Remittances, Monarchism and all that
Tonga is one of the few surviving feudal monarchies in the world. The “royal” family and the aristocracy – made up of chiefs, who refer to themselves as the “nobility” – own about 75% of the land. The remaining 25% is owned by the government. The rest of the population are called “commoners”, or more disparagingly “dirt eaters”. Most “commoners” work off small plots of land, which they lease from the “royal” family, chiefly aristocracy and the government. “Royal” and “noble” landlords expect “commoners” to pay free tributes to them, normally in the form of food.
Tonga is often seen as the “friendly islands”, a peaceful island paradise of golden beaches and palm trees. Tonga is historically one of the most stable and conservative countries in the Pacific. Traditionally, most “commoner” Tongans have taken to heart the Christian doctrine of humble submissiveness. The church has preached “blind humility and unseeing allegiance [to the aristocracy and monarchy] will open the door to eternal glory.” However, many Tongans are overcoming this indoctrination in recent years.
The Tongan economy is based on agriculture. The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food. About 50% of Tongans produce almost all of their basic food needs through farming and fishing. The only significant industry is the processing of coconuts into copra and dessicated coconut. Tourism provides most of the hard cash. Manufacturing, which is dominated by small industries, only accounts for about 10% of Tonga’s GDP. However, an increasing proportion of workers are being employed in manufacturing since the monarchy has progressively “modernised” and monetised the economy. In the 1990s, those employed in manufacturing rose from 3% to 23% of the workforce, while correspondingly those employed in agriculture and fishing decreased from 49% to 34% of the workforce.
Yet Tonga can’t be viewed as a simple feudal economy stuck in the past. It has, perhaps, a mixed feudal and capitalist economy. Most Tongans rely on remittances – money sent back home by relatives working abroad. Indeed, a whopping 31% of the Tongan GDP is made up by remittances, the highest proportion of remittances of any country in the world. Only Moldova (27% of GDP), Lesotho (26%), Haiti (25%) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (22.5%) come close (see “Gender, Migration, and Domestic Labor”, Prol-Position News, 5 (2006)).
Remittances help pay for Tonga’s massive trade deficit. In 2004, Tonga imported $122 million and exported $34 million. According to I. C. Campbell, Tongans mainly use remittances to buy imported consumer goods and cars, and to pay for building “modern” houses with “modern” facilities. As a result, most “commoner” Tongans aren’t living at a subsistence level. According to Campbell, in the late 1990s there were 17,000 cars in Tonga, which meant there was one car for about every five Tongans.
Since the early 1970s, land shortages, unemployment and the search for a better life overseas have all contributed to a Tongan diaspora abroad. The major destinations have been New Zealand, Australia and the US. Today, about half of all Tongans live overseas. During the post WWII long boom and labour shortage, capitalists encouraged migrant labour from the Pacific Islands. In 1970, a scheme began whereby Tongans were allowed to migrate temporarily to work in blue-collar employment. Many migrated to Auckland, which has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. Capitalists preferred Tongan factory workers because they thought they were hard-workers, sober, reliable, obedient and prepared to do the tedious work that others refused to do (see De Bres et al, 1974). Once the long boom collapsed, the New Zealand government no longer welcomed Pacific (a term which has increasingly replaced the old term “Pacific Island” in recent years) workers. Indeed, they forcibly deported many through the infamous police “dawn raids” which began in 1974 under the Labour Government (see De Bres et al 1974 and De Bres and Campbell 1976). In the 1990s, a quota system operated, with stringent entry qualifications.
Today, Tongans who live overseas work largely in unskilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs. For example, in New Zealand, Tongans predominantly have factory jobs, such as freezing workers/abattoir workers, or other blue-collar jobs, such as cleaners. These jobs are low-paid by New Zealand standards, but are relatively well-paid by Tongan standards. In 1996, the wage rate for unskilled labour in Tonga was 80c to $1 NZ per hour, while the equivalent rate in New Zealand was almost ten times that.
Despite these remittances, Tonga is a poor country. It has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the South Pacific. There are a tiny number of wealthy citizens, as the aristocracy make up less than 1% of the population. The gap has widened considerably since the introduction of neoliberal reforms in recent years. Agricultural output has fallen below its 1980 level. Unemployment is high at 13%, and only a quarter of school leavers can find work. Many attempt to emigrate. In 2003, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was $US2,200. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently claimed that the Tongan economy was on the verge of collapse. Since 1991, GDP has fallen 1.1% per year, compared to a growth rate of 3.1% in Samoa during the same time. So as living standards in Samoa have steadily risen, they have plummeted in Tonga.
Josh Liava’a, a “key pro-democracy campaigner”, has said on Niu FM (an Auckland radio station):
We have people living right in the middle of the rubbish tip, and they share the food with the dogs, the rats, the rodents, the flies and the mosquitoes…There is the no other country in the Pacific that has got that horrendous living condition and situation like some of our people are experiencing in Tonga.
This is one of the more important factors in causing an upsurge in class struggle in Tonga in recent years.
Neoliberalism and privatisation has enriched the ”royal” family and the aristocracy enormously. Perhaps fearing their days are numbered with the ever-increasing encroachment of capitalism into Tonga, “royalty” and the chiefly aristocracy have broadened their portfolio. In the past, their wealth was based on owning land. Today, they also own many businesses, including key strategic industries such as electricity and telecommunications. For instance, the King has amassed a personal fortune because he owns Tonga’s electricity company, its beer company, one of its mobile phone companies (Tonfon), a cable television company and the rights to Tonga’s internet domain name. Princess Pilolevu owns lucrative geo-orbital satellite slots, which were originally given to the Tongan government for its own communication needs. Hence the Princess turned the government’s satellite entitlement into her own private satellite communications business, Tongasat. In 2000, the new King George Tupou V, then a prince, tried to sell the genetic information of Tongans to an Australian biotech company. Overall, the “royals” and aristocracy are seen as nepotistic, corrupt, arrogant, aloof and greedy. The current King George Tupou V, who was educated at Oxford University and the Sandhurst military academy, has openly shown his contempt for “commoners”.
Yet it’s not only the “commoners” who have been alienated by the greed of the aristocracy. The business elite also think that the aristocratic class has unfairly looted the wealth of Tonga. They are bitterly disappointed that neoliberalism has enriched the traditional elite of Tonga rather than themselves. This is worth remembering when the pro-democracy movement is considered later in this article.
Tonga’s “royal” family, established in the 19th century under the tutelage of British Methodist missionaries, wields almost absolute governmental power. The King appoints the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for life. He also appoints the entire cabinet, the Privy Council and the Supreme Court. Parliament or Fale Alea has 30 seats, of which twelve are reserved for the appointed cabinet ministers, nine are selected by the country’s 33 “nobles” or chiefs, who acquire their life titles by descent, and only nine (“the people’s representatives” or “commoner politicians”) are elected by popular vote.
The Tongan aristocracy wasn’t imposed by European imperialism. Indeed, Tonga is unique in the Pacific because it was never fully annexed by a European power (Britain had “protectorate” status, or control of Tonga’s foreign policy, from 1900 to 1970, when Tonga gained full independence). Although the Tongan aristocracy has adopted many aspects of the European and Japanese aristocratic traditions, it has also strong indigenous roots. It seems that Tongan society before European contact in the 17th century was one of the most hierarchical societies in Polynesia, apart from perhaps Hawaii. Tongan society was broadly divided into three classes:
(1) the hou’eiki (chiefs), matāpule (talking chiefs) and mu’a (would-be talking chiefs)
(2) the tu’a (commoners)
(3) the pōpula or hopoate (slaves)
All titles were heritable. The high chief was known as the Tu’i Tonga, the ancient title for the ruler of Tonga. The Tu’i Tonga were omnipotent monarchs whose very touch rendered an object tapu (sacred). The distinction between commoners and slaves in practice was little, as chiefs could kill, beat or rob commoners without reason or defence.
The 2005 Wildcat Strike and the Pro-Democracy Movement
Resistance to the Tongan regime has been brewing since the 1960s, especially after Tongans returned home with new ideas from abroad. A popular pro-democracy movement emerged in the 1980s, but it has been a very mild movement until recently. Its main forms of protest have been petitioning the King and holding demonstrations calling for democratic reform. As the King has ignored these pleas, many Tongans have become frustrated with the ineffectiveness of these protests. Hence they have spontaneously turned to more radical forms of protest, including a wildcat strike and rioting in the last few years.
In 2005, the largest and most successful strike in Tongan history took place. It lasted seven weeks, and involved 3,000 government workers. It was a wildcat strike: it wasn’t organised by unions; instead, it helped found the Public Services Association (PSA), the union for government workers. Dr. Aivi Puloka, the president of the Public Services Association, has said.
Before the strike there was no PSA. There was no Trade Union movement. It was just a spontaneous reaction of dissatisfaction with the government…And public servants decided to walk out from work. How was it organised? It was just an announcement and everybody turned up. [Puloka interviewed by Smush and SLM].
Strikes and unions are relatively new in Tonga; according to I. C. Campbell, the first union in Tonga was formed in 1976, and the country didn’t experience its first recorded strike by wage-workers (by nurses) until 1980.
The strike blossomed into a popular rebellion against the monarchy. There were daily gatherings of workers and their supporters in Nuku’alofa as well as large protests elsewhere in Tonga. The Tongan community in New Zealand also organised protests, including solidarity demonstrations outside the King of Tonga’s New Zealand residence in Auckland. Some demonstrators rammed the gate of the King’s residency and scuffles broke out with police and security guards. The strikers and supporters started to demand constitutional reform. Protests reached a peak with one demonstration of 10,000-20,000 people, almost one tenth to one fifth of the Tongan population and the largest march in Tongan history, calling for democratic reform. “Royal” owned houses were torched, government cars overturned, school classrooms wrecked and a petrol bomb thrown at a house owned by business partners of the current King.
The government, fearing an uprising, needed to end the strike. The PSA, whose leadership is closely tied to the major organisation of the “pro-democracy” movement, the Friendly Islands Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM), feared that the strike was threatening to escape its control. Hence it suited both the government and the PSA leadership to end the strike. After 45 days, the strike was won and pay increases between 60-80% were conceded to all “public servants” or government workers.
The strike caused divisions within the pro-democracy movement. In particular, the strike alienated some of the leadership of the “pro-democracy” movement who think that the monarchy and aristocracy have been inept in managing Tongan workers. The wage increase of almost 80% for government workers “threatens macroeconomic instability”, according to Gaurav Sodhi of the Centre of Independent Studies (see Sodhi 2006). Some leaders of the pro-democracy movement, especially those tied to the business community, see the increase as “suicidal” and “unaffordable.” They want a neoliberal state that reverses these gains (ie. cuts wages) and prevents rioting from occurring in the future. One reason why they want representative, bourgeois democracy is because they believe the current political set-up has made Tongan workers and peasants too rebellions.
The emerging capitalist class in Tonga, as represented by the Tongan National Business Association, aims to further its own class interests at the expense of Tongan “commoners”. They see the feudal monarchy as an unwieldy obstacle to the proper “modernisation” and “liberalisation” of the Tongan economy. Ideally, they would like to see the “royal” and aristocratic monopoly on land ownership abolished, government-owned land privatised, the guarantee that allows every Tongan over 16 to lease 8 acres of government-owned land removed, large-scale agri-business set up and tourist resorts built. This process would force many “commoners” off the land and into wage-slavery in Tonga or overseas. They also want to end strong “restrictions” on commercial agriculture such as “stifling” export licences for export produce. They want to “open up” the Tongan economy to foreign ownership (which is currently prohibited) and the injection of overseas capital.
However, the pro-democracy movement shouldn’t be confused with the Tongan National Business Association. For example, the HRDM seems to be a broad, and uneasy, cross-class coalition of workers, unionists, politicians, urban business elites (and expatriate capitalists overseas) and middle-class elements who’ve been university educated overseas. Information about the HRDM is sketchy. It appears, from the limited information available, that the HRDM’s political aims are to get a higher percentage of “commoner” politicians elected in parliament and eventually a constitutional monarch along the lines of Britain. The Trotskyist World Socialist Website claim that its economic aims are to implement the demands of the IMF and World Bank. Yet it’s possible that the WSWS maybe confusing the HRDM’s economic aims with those of the Tongan National Business Association. The Business Association are involved in the HRDM, but so too are social democrats such as “commoner” politician ‘Akilisi Pohiva, who want to “share the wealth” of Tonga. Others involved in the broader pro-democracy movement don’t support neoliberal policies, such as the People’s Democratic Party, a leftist split from the HRDM.
Yet overall it’s important to note that the downfall of authoritarian, bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia in the 1990s by popular movements often led to the formation of “democratic” regimes that instituted severe neoliberal reforms. That is, there is a strong relationship between the establishment of bourgeois democracy and neoliberal reform (see David Seddon and John Walton, Free Markets and Food Riots).
The Riot. A Pro-Democracy Affair?
Shortly after the strike, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died in 2006. He was succeeded by his eldest son, George Tupou V. Tongans expected some democratic reform under the new monarch, especially as the government formed a committee to do so following the 2005 strike. On 16 November 2006, the final sitting day of parliament for the year, a pro-democracy rally of several thousand marched to parliament in Nuku’alofa (population: c.35,000). They demanded that a vote on major democratic reforms take place before the house rose for the year. Yet parliament was adjourned for the year without having made any of the promised reforms. In frustration and anger, over 2,000 people spontaneously set off and rioted.
The rioters were of all ages. Children and the elderly took part. A large minority were women. At times, whole families participated in the looting, wheeling away their goods in supermarket trolleys. It wasn’t limited to a few criminal types. Yet most of rioters were young males. Later news reports blamed the rioting on drunken youth. One Tongan American commented on the Aotearoa (New Zealand) Indymedia website “those who participated in the riots seem to have been rowdy deported misfits from the US. Ex-gang members and scum of society.”
The rioters weren’t a mindless, drunken mob, indiscriminately looting and burning everything in sight. They targeted specific buildings and businesses. For example, they gutted the headquarters of the Shoreline group of companies, which runs Tonga’s electricity company. Shoreline is owned by the King. They also looted and burnt down Tonfon, Tonga’s major phone company, also owned by the King. So, it seems, they targeted buildings and businesses closely associated with the King and his government.
In this respect, the Tongan riot resembled the “IMF riots” against neoliberalism that erupted in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Like the IMF riots, the Tongan rioters deliberately targeted specific institutions that they perceived as responsible for their exploitation and degradation. The IMF riots typically targeted government buildings, symbols of international capital and foreign affluence, shopping malls, supermarkets and major retail outlets.
The Tongan riot closely followed this pattern. Rioters attacked government buildings, smashing windows in the Prime Minster’s Office and Cabinet Office in Parliament House, the Magistrates Court, the Public Service Commission, and the Ministry of Finance, and overturning numerous government cars, including police cars. They also targeted symbols of international capital, such as the only overseas bank in town, the ANZ bank, and the symbols of foreign affluence, such as the Pacifica Royale luxury hotel, which is owned by King’s business associates, the ‘Indian Princess’ Sefo and Soane Ramanlal. Further, they looted and set ablaze a major retail outlets and shopping complex (including a supermarket) owned by the unelected, royal appointed Prime Minister Feleti Seveli (who has strong links to the pro-democracy movement, and was appointed by the King to appease popular discontent). Overall, most of the symbols of modern capitalism and foreign affluence were attacked, such as banks, cinemas and shopping malls, while more traditional forms of business, such as the Nuku’alofa markets, were left alone.
So it seems to be a clear-cut case that the riot was a pro-democracy rampage. Protesters, frustrated with the autocratic, authoritarian King, as well as the lack of democratic reform, went off and attacked government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy. “Smush”, an Indymedia activist from New Zealand who visited Tonga after the riots, has written
After seeing downtown Nuku’alofa and talking to various people, I think the riot’s roots lie in the people’s deep frustration and anger with the government, the nobles, the King and the feudal system as a whole. The riots were targeting government buildings, companies owned by the PM, King and his family and outside the city centre some Chinese and Indian shops…In the city centre, most shops were looted and destroyed and many burnt down (ie. every shop was targeted).
However, this explanation only tells one part of the story. Yes, the riot was caused by a lack of democratic reform. Yet it was also a class riot.
Or a Festival of the Oppressed?
Latu Kolomatangi, of the pro-democracy movement, has said of the class nature of the riot:
I think on that day [the day of the riot] it was the day of the poor people to get their share from the business people. Seeing people enjoying taking goods out of the shops and burning them made me think of the poor and how they get their share from the business people. For years they collect from the poor. Thursday [the day of the riot] is a day for the poor to take their share from them. [Kolomatangi interviewed by Smush and SLM].
As such, the riot was a day of class revenge by the oppressed: they freely took from the businesses that had been taking and profiting from them. By mass looting, Tongan “commoners” went beyond mere calls for democratic reform. They organised themselves, and took freely what they needed from the stores. Claims that the riot was simply an “anti-feudal” riot are misleading as, like the IMF riots, the Tongan riot didn’t revolve around the question of land ownership. It wasn’t an explosion of peasant discontent over the lack of land redistribution; like the IMF riots, it was primarily an urban riot of the “urban poor.”
The looting was carried out in a carnival atmosphere. One news report said “Laughing and Looting as Tonga’s capital burns.” An eyewitness to the looting commented, “Most Tongans had smiles on their faces like it was Christmas come early.” Footage of the riot taken by European tourists and posted on a website showed a large crowd going about mass, systematic looting. Once one store was cleaned out, it was set alight. What’s overwhelming from watching the footage is the carnival atmosphere of the riot – the continual din of laughter, chatter and whooping.
A classic analysis of a riot, namely of the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles, was written by Guy Debord of the Situationist International:
The Los Angeles rebellion was a rebellion against the commodity…Like the young delinquents of all the advanced countries…the Los Angeles blacks take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible, because they want to use them. In this way they are challenging their exchange-value…Through theft and gift they rediscover a use that immediately refutes the oppressive rationality of the commodity, revealing its relations and even its production to be arbitrary and unnecessary. The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle: ‘To each according to their false needs’ – needs determined and produced by the economic system which the very act of looting rejects.
Many aspects of Debord’s analysis are questionable, such as his distinction between “real” and “false” desires, and “real” and “false” needs. Much of his analysis is dated, as it only applies to the era of “abundance” during the post WWII long boom. Also, looting shouldn’t be glorified, as it’s clearly a limited form of class-based self-organisation. To state the obvious, rioting is a temporary and spontaneous rampage, a venting of anger, that doesn’t offer constructive alternatives. Looting fixes responsibility on the retailer rather than the producer, and is thus limited to the realm of consumption. However, Debord does make a case that looting is a distorted example of communist distribution in action, in that people were taking freely from stores according to their “false” needs.
While it’s true most protesters merely wanted representative democracy, their (nascent anti-capitalist) practice during the riot was sometimes ahead of their (democratic) theory. Significantly, most businesses in the CBD of Nuku’alofa were gutted, not just the interests of the “royal” family, aristocracy and Chinese community. The riot happened against the wishes of the leadership of the democracy movement. Journalist Mateni Tapueluelu told the NZ Herald, “They [the protesters] demanded that if the Government did not agree to political reform by 2008, they would do something – nobody knew what they meant”, he said. “None of the leading activists or people’s representatives were leading this: they tried to stop it but they couldn’t stop it.” For example, a prominent leader of the democracy movement, politician ‘Akilisi Pohiva, went on the radio to urge demonstrators to stop looting and go home. Other pro-democracy politicians made similar pleas. Many figures in the democracy movement distanced themselves from the riot. Osi Maama, editor of the Tonga Times interviewed on the Newstalk ZB radio station immediately after the riots, commented “the thing is…a lot of people wanted to do these damages…[it was] nothing to do with political democratic movement.”
As an aside, not only did they burn down most businesses in Nuku’alofa, they also burnt down the offices of the HRDM. The HRDM had their offices upstairs in the Tungi Arcade, which was torched by the rioters. Perhaps by (intentionally or unintentionally) burning down their offices, the rioters recognised that a few democratic reforms or even overthrowing the monarchy and bringing in bourgeois democracy wouldn’t really alleviate, let alone abolish, their class exploitation (although the situation is complex, as getting rid of an absolutist monarchy would probably help somewhat, open up some space for further struggle, and give Tongan “commoners” much confidence in their ability to change society). Or perhaps they just wished to burn down a shopping mall. Either way, their practice was ahead of their apparent adherence to representative democracy.
Or a Race Riot?
The Tongan riot, like the rioting in the Solomon Islands in 2006, has been portrayed as an anti-Chinese rampage. Small business, particularly retail establishments on Tongatapu island – the main island of Tonga – is dominated by recent Chinese migrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme that ceased in 1998. According to academic Phil Crocombe, Chinese migrants own 72% of business in Tonga. It’s difficult to find exact figures as to how many Chinese live in Tonga. Some say a few hundred, others a few thousand. Tonga is ethnically homogeneous, as Tongans make up 98% of Tonga’s population.
Many Chinese owned shops, especially the larger retail establishments, were looted and burnt. But Hu Yeshun, the Chinese Ambassador to Tonga, said in the People’s Daily (China) immediately after the riot that “more than 25 percent of Chinese stores [about 30] were looted or burned yesterday, causing big losses to the owners.” Yet since the riot set ablaze 80% of Nuku’alofa’s CBD, the figure of “more than 25%” of Chinese-owned businesses being destroyed is disproportionately small. So if Yeshun’s estimation is true, it suggests that rioters didn’t go out of their way to destroy Chinese-owned stores, in contrast to what was reported in most capitalist media reports. Hence labelling the riot as a race riot is false.
Indeed, Indymedia reporters talked to one woman, who saw the rioters refrain from setting alight a few Chinese shops. She said the rioters looked like they were going to loot and burn down four shops, some of which were operated by Chinese. But many people stood in front of the shops to protect them. They managed to persuade the rioters not to burn the shops because it would’ve destroyed people’s houses too. Only one shop was looted and none were burnt. On another occasion, rioters only smashed the windows of a Chinese restaurant.
Overall, while some Chinese businesses were looted, the rioters were driven by class anger rather than race hatred. The main causes of the riot weren’t anti-Chinese racism. The main causes of the riot were, as I have argued above, anger with the Tongan feudal class system and the emerging capitalist system in Tonga, as well as frustration with the lack of democratic reform to the monarchical government. A small minority of Tongans dislike the Chinese, but racism doesn’t appear to be too deep. Indeed, Smush has suggested that racism is more widespread amongst urban Tongan capitalists (who support the democracy movement) than Tongan urban and rural workers. Smush has written:
I do think that there are some anti-Chinese exponents amongst democracy supporters, particularly in the ‘business community’. They say they are angry at the King’s ‘undemocratic approval’ of 400 Chinese immigrants over night. The suggestion of an ‘ethnic conflict’, as presented by some of the mainstream/capitalist media, (a) downplays the widely held disgust with the current system (and therefore plays in the hand of the ruling class), and (b) is far from the truth because most Tongan people are friendly, or at least not unfriendly, towards Chinese immigrants.
The Tongan riot was a mixed pro-democracy and class riot. Frustration with the authoritarian monarchy and its lack of democratic reform was the most obvious cause of the riot. That being the case, perhaps the Tongan riot will be just seen as an explosive episode in the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Tonga, and thus lacked anti-capitalist content. Yet in looting and burning most businesses in Nuku’alofa, rioters went beyond mere calls for representative democracy and the toppling of the hated feudal system. Dispossessed Tongans targeted institutions they thought were responsible for their impoverishment. As such, “black Thursday”, as the riot has been called, was a day of class revenge. Not only is the old feudal establishment in Tonga worried that they might be soon overthrown, the leadership of the pro-democracy movement is worried that many dispossessed Tongans have become too unruly. The leadership of the pro-democracy movement will attempt to channel the rebellion into safe, bourgeois channels, such as parliamentary reform.
The Tongan riot is part of a wider surge in class struggle in the Pacific since 2005. Since this date, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and Tahiti have experienced major strikes, and Tonga and the Solomons have experienced riots. More unrest and IMF style riots are likely, as neoliberal market reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank have savagely cut the living standards of Pacific people, while enriching island elites. Increasingly, island elites lack the resources to control their own population, hence Australia and New Zealand have sent in troops to prop up unpopular regimes and to repress popular movements. It will be interesting to see how this rebellion develops in the Pacific.
Braddock, John. “Signs of social and economic crisis across Pacific Island states”, 28 Dec. 2005, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/dec2005/paci-d28.shtml (and various other articles from that Trotskyist website).
de Bres, Joris, Rob Campbell and Peter Harris, Migrant Labour in the Pacific (1974).
de Bres, J. and Rob Campbell, The Overstayers (1976).
Campbell, I. C. Island Kingdom: Tonga Ancient and Modern (2001).
Capitalist newspaper, radio, web and TV reports of the riot.
Debord, Guy. “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, Dec. 1965, reprinted in Internationale Situationniste, 10 (March 1966), http://www.bopsecrets-org.pem.data393.net/SI/10.Watts.htm
“Gender, Migration, and Domestic Labor”, Prol-Position News, 5 (2006), pp. 6-13, http://www.prol-position.net
Lay, Graeme. Pacific New Zealand (1996).
Smush and SLM, “Revolutionary not Evolutionary – Indymedia Activists report from Tonga”, posted 25 Nov. 2006,
, & “Abuse in Tongans Prisons”,
, posted 1 Dec. 2006 & “If a boat ends up on a reef”,
, posted 29 Nov. 2006 (all of these reports were Aotearoa Indymedia features).
Sodhi, Gaurav. “Tonga Monarchy Needs Modernity”, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0611/S00125.htm, posted 8 Nov. 2006.
Walton, John and David Seddon, eds. Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment (1994).
 I oppose these “interventions”, but that doesn’t mean I support Leninist “anti-imperialism”, which claims people in countries dominated by foreign powers ought to form nationalist cross-class alliances to kick out the foreign enemy.
 Most involved in the “pro-democracy” movement don’t even want the overthrow of the monarchy, but instead a power-sharing relationship with the King through more “commoner” politicians being able to be elected. The “radicals” want a British style system (a parliament with a constitutional monarch).
 Although in June 2007 the Tongan government has threatened to refuse to pay the agreed pay increases. In response, the PSA has threatened strikes.
 See John Braddock, “Newspaper ban exposes growing conflict in Tongan ruling circles”, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/jun2003/tong-j06.shtml, posted 6 June 2003,
 The IMF riots mostly took the form of food riots in response to price hikes and food shortages caused by the imposition of IMF “structural adjustment policies”, but they sometimes took the form of a political demonstration that got out of hand. The Tongan riot was of the latter category.