King of Tonga dies: Flamboyant ruler brought democratic change

King of Tonga dies
Tonga is in mourning for a king who helped bring about what his all-powerful father refused to: democratic reform.

The Tongan government on Monday confirmed the death of the 63-year-old monarch, George Tupou V, according to International Business Times, but it did not give a cause. The bachelor king, known for his globe-trotting, his pith helmets and his monocle, had undergone surgery for cancer last year in Los Angeles, reports Agence France-Presse.

George Tupou V was crowned king of the small Polynesian nation in August 2008. He took over after the 2006 death of his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who had ruled the small Polynesian nation since 1967. 

During his reign, Taufa'ahau Tupou refused to bow to demands of democracy advocates and share power with an elected parliament.

As The Times reported in 2002, critics accused members of the royal family of having enriched themselves through special deals with the government and putting millions of dollars in overseas banks. Meanwhile, most of the island nation's people lived in poverty as subsistence farmers.

Tupou V promised reforms soon after being sworn in. Riots that left eight people dead followed, making changes to the constitution a top priority and delaying his official coronation for two years.

Despite the democratic reforms, his coronation ceremony didn't stint on the fabulous. A Times article in 2008 told of the elaborate proceedings in which he was anointed with oil and a large gold crown was placed on his head. Tupou V sat on a golden throne in the capital's Centenary Church with 1,000 guests, as Archbishop of Polynesia Jabez Bryce proclaimed he had been "anointed, blessed and consecrated" as king of the South Pacific nation.

In 2010, 165 years of feudal rule ended as Tonga held its first vote for a popularly elected parliament.

Poverty continues in the nation.  Still, Tupou V's contributions to change are seen as his legacy.

New Zealand's prime minister, John Key, said Monday in a statement that Tupou V made a "very valuable contribution ... in steering Tonga toward democracy."

"He believed that the monarchy was an instrument of change and can truly be seen as the architect of evolving democracy in Tonga," Key said. "This will be his enduring legacy."

Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, Tupou V's brother, is the heir to the throne.  His coronation and the funeral for Tupou V are expected to be lavish and a possible further burden on the country's finances, according to Agence France-Presse.

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-- Amy Hubbard in Los Angeles

Photo: King George Tupou V of Tonga wears a cape trimmed with white ermine fur for his coronation  in August 2008. Credit: Peter Halmagyi / AFP/Getty Images

 
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