NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga >> Homes swathed in purple and black formed a bright bow running from the countryside to cities of Tonga as the mourning nation honored and buried their late King George Tupou V on Tuesday.
That so many took the care to adorn their homes and businesses testifies to the reverence Tongans give to the idea of the monarchy, even after Tupou ceded many of his own powers in 2008 to usher in a new era of democracy.
But his March 18 death is also raising questions about whether his younger brother, Tupou VI, will continue his legacy. The new king is seen by many here as being more conservative than his predecessor, and some fear he could stall or even reverse the political progress made in this small Pacific island nation. However, the new king does bring with him a wealth of political experience.
The centerpiece of Tuesday’s funeral ceremony was a procession of 1,000 men who took turns shouldering an enormous catafalque which carried the king’s coffin.
The men marched through a line of some 5,000 children in the capital Nuku’alofa, taking the coffin from the royal palace to the royal tombs. Girls from Queen Salote College sat in the burial grounds for hours, beautifully turned out in bright blue dresses and braided hair.
The dignified ceremony mixed Christian tradition with Tongan rituals. Attendees were required to wear nothing but black, and many wore traditional skirt mats, called ta’ovala. The heat got to some, including one man from the Army who passed out while standing at attention. He was quickly attended to by medical staff.
There were signs in Tuesday’s ceremony that the new king is conscious about the costs of the monarchy, which has been a source of criticism in the past. The ceremony was performed a day earlier than planned to save money on accommodating guests and within a budget of about $50,000.
That was a far cry from Tupou V’s lavish 2008 coronation which lasted for days and cost $2.5 million, putting a financial strain on the impoverished country of 106,000.
Outside the burial grounds, hundreds sat watching from the streets.
“It’s a big loss for us,” said Tevita Tonga. “He brought freedom to the people, for them to run the country.”
Student Misi Vea, 20, said he thought the new king might not connect as well with a younger generation because he was much more concerned with the culture and tradition of the monarchy. Vea said younger people enjoyed the late king’s irreverence in some of those matters.
Tevita Moala, a gas station attendant, said he thinks the most pressing issue for the new king is to try and help businesses thrive.
“Most of our youth don’t have any jobs,” Moala said. “People just move overseas, where they can get a job and get more money.”
Tupou V rose to the throne in 2006 after the death of his father, who for 40 years had resisted giving up any powers of the monarchy. But Tupou V faced rioters and delayed his official coronation until 2008 while he put together the framework for sweeping political reforms, which he introduced days before his coronation.
The new king, formerly Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, had been living in Canberra, Australia, where he served as Tonga’s high commissioner. Before that, he served six years as the country’s appointed prime minister before resigning the post in 2006.