Tue, Nov 21, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Tongans unhappy with troop presence

POLITICAL PAWNS?To the locals, the Australian and New Zealand troops appear to be supporting an undemocratic system that triggered last week's riots in the capital


As international flights resumed to riot-torn Tonga yesterday, pro-democracy advocates in the kingdom said troops from Australia and New Zealand helping ensure airport security are propping up the island's current political order.

About 150 troops and police flew in late on Saturday to secure key infrastructure at the request of the Tongan government -- two days after eight people died in a violent riot that saw 80 percent of the nation's commercial center torched by mobs.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said another 11 police investigators are being sent to join more than 40 already there, beefing up local resources because of the number of buildings and crime scenes torched in the riot.

Finau Tutone, leader of the Pro-democracy movement, said the troops were seen as supporting the current undemocratic system.

"Yes, that's the interpretation of the people ... they [troops] are going to perpetuate the existing political system that caused the dissatisfaction," he said on radio yesterday when asked if Tongans saw the troops as supporting the current government.

"The Peoples' Committee for Democratic Reform sent a petition to the king for the prime minister [Fred Sevele] and some other ministers to be dismissed because it will quell down the dissatisfaction of the people," Tutone said.

King Siaosi Tupou V should then "set up an interim government to make ... [political] renovations," he said.

The troops may not have been needed if Australia and New Zealand had done more to assist change, he said, but Tonga needs them now "as our troops and police are too small."

Clark immediately rejected the claim the troops were helping prop up the current Tongan government.

"There is absolutely no basis for their criticism," she said.

"New Zealand isn't taking sides in any internal dispute in Tonga but when there's a complete breakdown of law and order ... it's not even possible to have political dialogue about the way forward," she continued.

Clark said the troops had ensured the island nation's main airport could reopen -- and airport security had been "a precondition" for airlines to resume services.

Flights to and from Sydney, Auckland and Samoa proceeded without a hitch. The first plane, a Pacific Blue flight from Auckland, landed around 9:45am.

"It's functioning as a commercial airport, as we would expect, and we are very much in the background, the task force as such," said Lieutenant Colonel Darren Beck, commander of the joint security force.

"Our primary concern is the restoration of security in Nuku'alofa to enable repairs and the reconciliation process to commence," Beck said.

New Zealand's High Commissioner in Tonga, Michael McBryde, said the Chinese government is planning a charter flight to evacuate scores of Chinese.

"People from the Chinese community are feeling vulnerable and there are a lot of them at the Chinese Embassy compound," he said.

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