Tonga’s King George Tupou V, who gave up most of his powers to bring a more democratic government to his Pacific island nation, died March 18 at a Hong Kong hospital. He was 63.
Tongan Prime Minister Lord Siale’ataonga Tu’ivakano announced the king’s death in a brief radio address.
The king, who was a bachelor, had a liver transplant last year and suffered other health problems, according to Tongan media reports.
He had reigned over the island nation of 106,000 since his father, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, died in 2006.
The king’s father had long resisted ceding any powers of Tonga’s absolute monarchy during his four-decade rule. But after his death, rioters unhappy with the pace of reforms took to the streets and destroyed the center of the capital, Nuku’alofa.
Against that backdrop, the new king delayed his official coronation until 2008 while he put together the framework for sweeping political reforms. Three days before the coronation ceremony, King Tupou announced he was ceding most of his executive powers to a democratically elected parliament. The king remains head of state, and some parliament seats are reserved for nobility.
While the parliament is now responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the country, the king retains the right to veto laws, decree martial law and dissolve the parliament.
Pesi Fonua, publisher of the Tongan news Web site Matangi Tonga, said the king also advocated for technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, and angered some conservative Tongans with his efforts to make the economy more market-driven and open to foreign competition and investment.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key released a statement Monday saying that he hopes the king’s work leading Tonga toward democracy will continue.
“He believed that the monarchy was an instrument of change and can truly be seen as the architect of evolving democracy in Tonga. This will be his enduring legacy,” Key said.
King Tupou was known for his throwback fashion choices — which included wearing, at times, a top hat and even a monocle.
And despite advocating for reforms, he did allow himself the royal obligation of an elaborate coronation, a five-day-long affair that included roast pig feasts, tribal rites and pomp. Its price tag of $2.5 million put a heavy strain on the impoverished nation.
The prime minister declared that the royal family and the nation were in mourning. Fonua said he ended his address with a Tongan expression meaning “The sun has set.”