Late Tongan King George Tupou V was renowned for his love of elaborate military uniforms and a jet-setting lifestyle, but he also achieved major political reform, experts said yesterday.
The South Pacific monarch died aged 63 in a Hong Kong hospital on Sunday and will be succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, 52, seen as far more conservative than his flamboyant sibling.
King Tupou V was viewed as something of a dilettante when he was sworn in as absolute monarch in September 2006, more interested in the pomp and ceremony of military parades, and over-the-top uniforms featuring acres of gold braid.
His penchant for being driven around the poverty-stricken streets of Nuku’alofa in a black London cab, sailing model boats in his swimming pool and waging mock wars with toy soldiers added to an oddball image.
However, the Oxford-educated monarch saw the need to reform his country’s antiquated constitution even before taking power and moved decisively to end 165 years of feudal rule after riots rocked the capital in November 2006.
The civil unrest, sparked by a mixture of frustration at the slow pace of reform and opportunistic looting, left eight people dead and much of the downtown area of Nuku’alofa in smoldering ruins.
Delaying his coronation until 2008, Tupou entered negotiations with reformers on changes that would bring majority government to Tonga for the first time.
Malakai Koloamatangi, an expert in Tongan politics at New Zealand’s Canterbury University, said King Tupou V’s achievements should not be overshadowed by his eccentricities.
“He wasn’t afraid to compromise and he fulfilled his promise to grant more freedoms in just a few years on the throne,” he said.
Times of Tonga editor Kalafi Maloa said attitudes to the monarch had shifted during his reign, bringing him closer to the people.
“Over the last several years, he has grown in terms of his popularity,” he said. “He has over this short time ... really won the hearts of the Tongan people.”
King Tupou V was born on May 4, 1948, the eldest of four children, and educated in Switzerland, New Zealand and Britain, where he attended Oxford University and the British army’s elite military academy at Sandhurst.
He was the first Tongan to ever earn a university degree, according to the official Tongan palace Web site, and he acted as the country’s foreign minister from 1979 to 1988.
As monarch, he maintained a globe-trotting lifestyle, sometimes prompting criticism that he did not spend enough time in his homeland. One of his last public appearances was an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last month.
The rugby-mad monarch died in Hong Kong as the southern Chinese city prepared to host its -annual rugby sevens competition this coming weekend.
His immediate cause of death was not known, but he underwent surgery in Los Angeles last year to remove a kidney after a cancerous growth was discovered.
Koloamatangi said the late king’s successor, former Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, was far more strait-laced than Tupou and was unlikely to repeat his extravagances.
“He’s a serious military man, he’s married and he’s a church-goer, a lay preacher I believe,” he said. “Things are likely to become a lot more orderly under him.”
The new monarch comes to the throne after spending the past three and a half years as his nation’s first ambassador to Australia in Canberra, where he is understood to have strong connections.