The day darkness fell on the kingdom was the day the first glimmer of democracy was seen

Twenty five years ago this month about 2500 citizens marched to the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa to ask the king not to legalise the sale of Tongan passports to foreigners.

On that day, March 8, 1991, many of the people were weeping as they peacefully approached the palace.

The Tongan government had sold 426 Tongan passports, many to Hong Kong Chinese worried about the impending communist takeover in 1997.

The people asked the king not to amend the constitution so as to legalise the sales, but the amendment went ahead after it was voted through Parliament by 15 vote to four.

Marching in the crowd that day were the kingdom’s current Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva and and two pro-democracy church leaders, the Late Dr Sione ʻAmanaki Havea of the Free Wesleyan Church and Late Bishop Patelesio Finau of the Catholic Church.

In a speech that Pohiva often quoted when he was campaigning for Parliament, Bishop Finau declared after the petitoners arrived at the palace office in Nukuʻalofa: “Today (midday) a darkness falls on Tonga.”

But it was also the day when the first glimmer of democracy was seen.

The amendment was felt to be one of the most embarrassing and wrongful acts in the history of modern Tonga. The country was under the absolute control of the monarchy and people were beginning to lose patience with the way the kingdom was run.

Pohiva declared at the time: “People are  becoming increasingly aware that the government is trying to make easy money, to gamble, to use the country. …a privileged few in high places in government are using unlawful tactics and strategies for their personal benefit. They are milking the system for themselves. Most people feel the existing social system isn’t able to accommodate the  needs, expectations and aspirations of the people.”

Protest begins

The march was the first peaceful protest to be staged in the kingdom by democratic activists and was part of thecampaign of Pohiva and his supporters to bring democracy to Tonga.

An emergency session of parliament was called on February 21, 1991 to amend the constitution after Pohiva launched a lawsuit against the government and the then police minister, claiming the passports should be declared invalid because the sales were unconstitutional and illegal.

Pohiva and two other commoner MPs walked out of Parliament during the debate over the proposal to change the constitution.


On the advice of his legal counsel Dr Rodney Harrison Pohiva agreed on March 1 to withdraw his court case. Once

L-R: Kiing Taufaʻāhau Tupou IV and John Meier, an American fraudster who was given a Tongan Diplomatic Passport in 1979
L-R: Kiing Taufaʻāhau Tupou IV and John Meier, an American fraudster who was given a Tongan Diplomatic Passport in 1979

the constitution had been changed there was no way he could pursue it. Pohiva was awarded NZ$23,500 in costs.

The government’s move polarised the Tongan public and political discussions. However, the most significant outcome was that the protest became the binding force that kept Pohiva and his supporters together for decades until he became the most popular democratic politician elected to Parliament and eventually Prime Minister.

At the time of the protest the king was urged to cancel the citizenship given to the 426 foreigners and to sack the then Police Minister, ‘Akau’ola, who had accepted responsibility for the illegal sales of naturalisation certificates and passports.

The king reportedly told the government newspaper Kalonikali that to cancel the sales would be too heavy a burden for the country because of the fees that would be required to make it happen.

Two kinds of Tongan passport were sold to foreigners; Tonga Protected Persons Passports and the Tongan National Passport, which was issued to those who became naturalised citizens.

The “protected person” passport was created in 1983 as a travel document for non-Tongans who had difficulties travelling beyond their own national boundaries. They were sold for US$10,000 each.

This document however did not give people automatic right of residence in Tonga in the 1980s and countries such as Australia and New Zealand did not recognise their validity.

This led the king granting naturalisation to any foreigner of “good character on humanitarian grounds” in 1984. The naturalisation fee was US$20,000, but additional fees could take the price tag up to more than $35,000.

Chinese coming to Tonga

At the time the government keep telling the people not to worry as Chinese holders of Tongan passports would not come to Tonga.

However, in the mid 1990s Chinese started arriving in Tonga and establishing small businesses, mostly retail stores in the capital Nukuʻalofa.

Their businesses grew and spread to the countryside and the outer islands and now dominate most of the retails and wholesales businesses in the kingdom. The Chinese have expanded their business interests to farming and cropping.

Unfortunately, they have become the target of some Tongan extremists who have robbed their businesses and abuse them.

International criminals

Tongan passports were used to protect international criminals about 10 years before they were sold to Chinese buyers.

The criminals included American fraudster John Meier who was eventually arrested by US authorities in Canada and extradited to the United States in 1979 for fraud and obstruction of justice.

He was also indicted and arrested for tax evasion and was later detained in Australia. However, because he carried with a diplomatic passport issued by the Kingdom of Tonga the Australian authorities released him.

Meier became a very close friend of the Late King Tupou IV and he was heavily involved in the financing of infrastructure projects in Tonga.

According to the book Hot Money and The Politics of Debt by R.T. Naylor, Meier promised the king a new airport, aircraft assembly plants, luxury hotels and ship building industry. Meier got his Tongan Diplomatic Passport in return.

There was a huge clean-up at Tupou College property in 1980s on the side of Fu’amotu International Airport as part of Meier’s project. It was left unfinished and the historic part of the rainforest at the college was left a bare field.

Meier failed to deliver his promises to the king and while the US authorities pressured Tongan authorities to hand him over the Tongan government withdrew his bank license and diplomatic passport.

Philippine’s president

Imelda Marcos, wife of the former President of the Philippines, who went in exile in Hawaiʻi after he was charged with fraud and various corruption claims was one of the best-known foreigners to obtain a Tongan passport.

Former Hong Kong Stock Exchange chief, Ronald Li, who served  a four-year jail term for bribery, and textile billionaire Chen Din-hwa were also reportedly among the Tongan passport holders.

The sale of passports netted US$26 million, all of which was lost when the Tonga Trust Fund was wiped out. The government filed lawsuits against several people, including Jesse Bogdonoff, who had been the government’s financial adviser and was appointed as the Late King Tupou IVʻs  official royal jester.  Bogdanoff settled his part of the law suit in 2004 without admitting liability. He now calls himself Jesse Dean and runs a hypnotism clinic in California.

Royal Commission

King Tupou VI, the current king of Tonga agreed in 2014 to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the Tongan passport scandal.

This would be a great step in piecing together all the details of what happened.

It is understood the Royal Commission has yet to begin its task, but a task force created by the Ministry of Police is currently investigating allegation and charges in relation to misuse of the Tongan passports.

Recently Police confiscated the Speaker of Parliament’ and former Prime Minister of Tonga Lord Tu’ivakano’s laptop as part of their passport scandal investigation. A former senior female police officer was also arrested and charged last month  in relation to passport fraud.

In 2014, Tongan citizens holding Tongan passports had visa-free or visa on arrival access to 83 countries and territories.

In a ranking of the world’s 80 most powerful passports , the Tongan passport came in at number 50.

The main points

  • Twenty five years ago this month 2500 citizens marched on the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa to ask the king not to legalise the sale of Tongan passports to Chinese citizens.
  • The people asked the king not to amend the constitution so as to legalise the sales, but the amendment went ahead after it was voted through Parliament by 15 vote to four.
  • Among the marchers that day was the Late Bishop Patelesio Finau of the Catholic Church, who declared: “Today (midday) a darkness falls on Tonga.”
  • But it was also the day when the first glimmer of democracy was seen.

PM disobeys King’s order over diplomatic passport

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