By Kacey Maher: Pacific Media Centre
Journalist and publisher Kalafi Moala has declared an optimistic vision for Tonga, saying: “My dream is that we will have a nation with freedom without domination, order without tyranny.”
“We're searching, we are seeking together as a people, for those solutions.”
It was a startling message contrasting sharply with a widespread image of white beaches, delicious food, and melodic singing that many people hold of the “friendly islands”.
Moala himself is softly-spoken, jovial and perpetually smiling.
Yet Moala is a hard-hitting journalist who has spent more than his fair share of time imprisoned or banned from his home country due to his paper Taimi ‘o Tonga’s past efforts to promote democratic reform.
Kalafi Moala was launching his new book, In Search of the Friendly Islands, at the Onehunga Community Centre and Library at the weekend.
His book is an attempt to educate both Tongans and non-Tongans about hidden truths behind the country’s peaceful demeanor - truths that, according to many who attended the launching, are mostly forgotten.
“There's a certain denial in Tonga that anything bad ever happens,” said American Hilary Scothorn, who, as an art historian has visited the country with her Tongan husband, artist Philip Tohi, on many occasions.
The book is “re-reporting” incidents that Tongans may have felt more comfortable forgetting, she said.
“I think it’s a very courageous book,” said New Zealand journalist Dr David Robie, who is director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre, in his speech at the book release.
“It is something of a reality check.”
Moala wastes no time getting to the point in his book.
“For me, the innocence for which my country of birth has been known was truly broken with the killing of ‘Ova and Ngauamo’s suicide,” writes Moala.
The first chapter, entitled “This is not the friendly way,” describes this and other brutal murders committed by Tongans, both on the islands and abroad in an attempt to highlight the growing trend of violence within Tongan communities.
The next chapter is no more forgiving, explaining how even the term “Friendly Islands”, given to Tonga by Captain James Cook, was an ironic misnomer.
Cook came up with the nickname after being welcomed and feasted by the chiefs of the island but, Moala corrects, the feast was organised in order to murder Cook and steal his ships.
Cook was saved only by the disorganisation of the chiefs and the subsequent failure of the plan, Moala writes.
Eye for the truth
And it is this unapologetic eye for the truth that has landed Moala in conflict with the Tongan authorities at times.
In 2004, his then Auckland-based Taimi was denied a licence by the Tongan government because of its criticism and “outsider’s” view.
Moala’s first book, Island Kingdom Strikes Back (2002), gives an account of both the newspaper’s struggle and that of his family for an open forum of information.
Broadcaster Sefita Hao’uli, and longtime friend of Moala, said: “I have never seen the floor of Tonga’s prison and I never would want to - even if you paid me.”
He praised Moala’s courageous attempts to tell the truth in the face of government censorship—attempts that saw him both imprisoned and banned from Tonga.
“But for someone to stick to a principle…that takes some courage.”
Moala’s paper suffered most during the constitutional monarchy of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. For nearly 40 years until he died, the king ruled with near absolute power.
However, King George Tupou V has brushed aside the authoritarian-type rule of his father and has begun to introduce a dialogue of democratic reform for the island nation that has been a constitutional monarchy for 160 years.
Mood for change
Now, in 2009, with a more relaxed government under King Tupou V and a growing feeling among Tongans that they want things to change, Moala is back living in Tonga and has absorbed the government-run paper the Chronicle into his publishing business.
“Twenty years ago we were told by the Chronicle that we wouldn’t last two months,” said Moala in his speech. Now, 20 years later Taimi ‘o Tonga owns the Chronicle.
However, despite the changes and the pathways towards reform, Moala’s optimism is cautious.
“No one has come up with any reliable assurances either of whether the system we are changing into is going to be better than what we now have,” Moala writes in his book.
The real change of reform, he says, is coming from the Tongans living abroad - those who, with a greater world view, can see Tonga’s place in the global society.
Once solutions are found, they will help not just Tonga but the entire Pacific region, according to Ana Currie, who heads the Pasifika Foundation Press.
“The whole region right now is in a fight for self-determination,” said Currie, “Tonga has the potential to be a shining beacon for all of the Pacific Islands.”
Photo of Kalafi Moala at the book launch by Alan Koon.
Katherine Maher is an American student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course as part of her Study Abroad programme at AUT University.