Tonga seeks ownership of Fiji’s Lau group

Kiliki: heni ke ke lau i he lea faka-Tonga

Lord Ma’afu, Tonga’s Minister of Lands and Survey, wants the Lau group to be given to Tonga in exchange for the Minerva reef.

Lord Ma’afu is a descendant of Tongan high chief and warlord, ‘Enele Ma’afu, who conquered the islands in about 1860. He eventually declared himself Tu’i Lau or King of Lau.

The Minister said his proposal might be a peaceful solution to a dispute that has been simmering for more than 40 years.

Tonga declared Minerva part of its territory in 1972, but in November 2005 Fiji complained to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) claiming Minerva was part of its territory. The claim was countered by Tonga without the ISA reaching any conclusion and arguments between the two countries have continued. 

In November 2009 an RNZAF Orion was seen flying over the reefs after Fiji patrol boats chased away yachts.

The row between the two countries reached such a point in 2010 that Fijian navy vessels destroyed navigation lights on the reefs.

The Tongan government immediately dispatched its navy vessels to the area to re-erect the navigational beacon and publicly announced its claim over the disputed reefs.

In May 2011 the row between Tonga and Fiji resurfaced after Tongan navy vessels crossed Fijian waters to take Fijian Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara to Nuku’alofa.

Mara, from the chiefly line of Lau, had been charged with conspiracy to overthrow the then dictator Voreqe Bainimarama.

Lord Ma’afu Tukui’aulahi told Tonga Daily News that Fiji and Tonga had a long history of cultural and blood relationship.

“We are closely related and our history dates back a long, long time,” Lord Ma’afu said.

“So in good faith I will propose to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Fiji that they can have Minerva Reef and we get Lau in return.”

According to Dr Rev Mohenoa Puloka,  a lawyer in  international  seabed law, Tonga could make two possible sovereign claims on the Minerva Reefs.

These are an Exclusive Economic Zone and a Special Economic Zone.

An EEZ is a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea over which states have special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind.

It stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles from its coast. 

An SEZ is a geographical region that has economic and other laws that are more free-market-oriented than a country’s typical or national laws. Nationwide, laws may be suspended inside a special economic zone.

The concept of a Special Economic Zone covers a broad range of specific zone types.

These include Free Trade Zones (FTZ), Export Processing Zones (EPZ), Free Zones (FZ), Industrial Estates (IE), Free Ports and Urban Enterprise Zones among others. 

The Lau group  has a land area of 487 square km, three times larger than Vava’u group the second largest island group in Tonga. Lau has a population of 10,683, according to 2007 census.

Tonga and the Lau group

Lauans have had strong blood connections with Tonga since it was conquered by ‘Enele Ma’afu.

He eventually declared himself Tui Lau or King of Lau and his descendants settled in the Lau group. 

Ma’afu died on February 6, 1881 on the island of Vanuavatu, and was buried on the island of Lakeba in the chiefly village of Tubou in the Lau group.

The attempts by Epenisa Seru Cakobau (1815 – 1883), the self-proclaimed Tui Viti, to unify Fijian tribes under his rule eventually succeeded after Taufa’ahau, who became King George Taufa’ahau 1 of Tonga in 1875, helped him with a strong fleet of warriors from Tonga in 1855.

The battle was a major victory for Cakobau, thanks mainly to his Tongan allies, and cemented his leadership over Fiji.

It also, however, underlined his dependency on the military power of Tonga, especially since Ma’afu remained in Fiji.

The relationship between the Fijians and the Tongans was strengthened after Adi Litia Cakobau, granddaughter of  Cakobau, bore a son to Tonga’s king Tupou II.

He was named Etuate Tuivanuavou Tugi Cakobau and in Tonga he was called Tungi Fisi.

Ratu Etuate became Fiji’s Minister for Labour and head of the Fiji Infantry Regiment in the Second World War. He received the British order of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KCBE)

His son, Ratu Viliame Dreunimisimisi (1937–2000), established the first distillery in the South Pacific and was Fiji’s former Minister for Tourism and Agriculture.

His second son, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, was president of Fiji in 2009 after he served as Speaker  of the House of Representatives – the lower and more powerful chamber of the Fijian Parliament.

Fiji’s long-time Prime Minister, Governor General and President, Late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who is considered to be the founding father of modern Fiji, was Tui Lau.

Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara who is now living in Tonga is Kamisese Mara’s youngest son.

Ratu Edward Cakobau was Ratu Kamisese Mara’s uncle.

Mara’s daughter Adi Koila Nailatukau, is married to the military-appointed President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatukau, the grandson of King Tupou II of Tonga.

The main points

  • Tonga wants Fiji to agree to swap the Minerva Reef for the Lau Group.
  • Tonga claimed the reef in 1972 and the two countries have been arguing about ownership ever since, with both sides sending naval vessels to uphold their claims.
  • Now Tonga’s Minister of Lands and Survey, Lord Ma’afu, wants Fiji to agree to swap the islands for the reef as a way of ending the dispute.
  • Lord Ma’afu is a descendant of Tongan warlord ‘Enele Ma’afu, who conquered the islands in about 1860 and eventually declared himself Tu’i Lau.

For more information

‘Fiji, Tonga war over Minerva Reef’ (Scoop)

‘Tonga proposes land swap with Fiji’ (RNZI)

‘Give up Lau’ (Fiji Times)

The disputed Minerva Reef (Youtube)

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