Tonga rioters demand reforms
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Youths infuriated by a lack of political reform attacked the prime minister's offices and other government buildings in Tonga's capital today, setting at least a dozen fires, witnesses said.
Mary Founa of the Matangi Tonga news Web site told the Associated Press by telephone from the capital, Nuku'alofa, that groups of youths were roaming the streets, overturning cars, smashing windows and setting fires while police stood by watching.
Flames and smoke shot from the roofs of several three-story buildings in the city center.
The rioting began after thousands of people gathered in Tonga's capital, demanding that the parliament pass democratic reforms before ending its annual session today.
Windows were smashed in Prime Minister Fred Sevele's offices and other government buildings, including Parliament House, the Magistrates' Court, the Public Service Commission Office and the Finance Ministry. It was not known if the prime minister was in the office at the time.
Rioters also overturned shelves and stripped stock from a supermarket owned by Sevele.
Sevele, who is appointed by the king, is seen as complicit in the delay of reforms, along with most of the Pacific island nation's political establishment.
Last month, a government committee recommended that all lawmakers be elected. Only nine lawmakers in the 32-seat parliament are now elected by popular vote — with the rest appointed by the king and noble families.
The recommendation was a significant step in the accelerating efforts to reform the kingdom's political system since the September death of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who had been in power for more than 40 years.
Communication in the island kingdom seemed to be affected, with many local subscribers unable to make overseas calls and foreign callers unable to reach the island.
Tonga, located halfway between Australia and Tahiti — has a population of around 108,000 and an economy dependent on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad.