Tonga: A right royal shame

By Matt Nippert

The king of Tonga enjoys his holiday while his people grieve for those lost in the Princess Ashika disaster. Photo / The Scotsman
The king of Tonga enjoys his holiday while his people grieve for those lost in the Princess Ashika disaster. Photo / The Scotsman

While his subjects struggle to come to terms with the country's worst maritime disaster, the King of Tonga, George Tupou V, festooned his chest with medals and saluted bagpipe players in Scotland's Edinburgh Castle yesterday.

But although the king's duties as designated salute taker for the Tattoo ended last night, he still won't be returning to his grieving island kingdom any time soon. Buckingham Palace, Downing St and the British Foreign Office confirmed King Tupou's appearance at the Tattoo was his only official engagement during his four-month European holiday.

Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele, said last week that King Tupou's holiday couldn't be cancelled. Instead the monarch's departure from the shell-shocked island nation was marked with a 21-gun salute.

Away from the pomp in Edinburgh, a memorial service was held in Christchurch on Friday for Scottish-born Dan Macmillan whose body is one of only two recovered so far. At least 93 other victims are missing, presumed entombed in the ferry's upstairs passenger compartment.

The ageing vessel sank quickly 11 days ago, 86km north east of the capital Nuku'alofa.

Macmillan, 48, had lived in New Zealand for 18 years and was a keen traveller who often opened his home to visiting backpackers, according to his flatmate Paul. "He met the guy he was going to stay with in Tonga that way. He was really looking forward to the trip." Even after New Zealand Navy divers discovered the wreck of the Ashika in 110m of water, a week after the tragedy, some bereaved families are having trouble coming to grips with the finality of the tragedy.

New Zealand policewoman Sisiliah Puleheloto, 24, is among the missing, and her distressed family are still clinging to a hope that she is alive. Fine Puleheloto, of Otara, is the missing woman's aunt, but the two grew up in the same household and she considers Sisiliah a "little sister." Puleheloto's family are travelling to Tonga from Australia, Niue and New Zealand, and Fine says they are all clinging to hope. "We still think she's alive, down there, on the bottom of the ocean. Not only her, but the whole group of people is stuck there. And it's very sad. We keep praying, what else can we do?"

Niue-born Puleheloto boarded the Ashika to visit the outlying islands of the kingdom while holidaying in Tonga, accompanied by her brother Dwenelle. He made it to the lifeboats before the ferry slipped beneath the waves. Puleheloto was due to accept another year-long assignment in the Solomon Islands in October as part of the RAMSI peacekeeping effort, according to her aunt.

Most Tongan citizens are cautious about speaking out against their king, but his departure for Scotland, the day after the disaster, has caused not only anger but weary resignation. As journalist and royal critic Mateni Tapueluelu puts it: "Well, welcome to Tonga. That's how it operates. We can't vote him out, we can't elect him out. He can do what he wants to do."

Before he left, King Tupou installed his sister Princess Regent Salote Pilolevu as his spokesperson for the tragedy. She appeared on local television and said, according to Tapueluelu, "This isn't the time for blaming." But the scale of the disaster – more people died aboard the Princess Ashika than on the Wahine, which sank in Wellington Harbour in 1968 – has sparked the 120,000-strong Tongan public to demand that someone take responsibility.

New Zealand-born transport minister Paul Karalus has resigned, and the prime minister himself is the target of increasingly angry protests. Says Tapueluelu: "If I have to be blunt, everybody is pretty much swearing at the Prime Minister at the moment." And Government critic and chairman of the Tongan small business association Tui'Uata says that, even in his absence and silence, King Tupou may well be pointing fingers of his own: "A lot of people say that the king doesn't care, but another way to view it is: He had nothing to do with this thing. This was a cabinet decision. This could be him saying, 'I want no part of this thing that's killed a lot of my people'."

Whoever is to blame, the finger-pointing has reached almost epidemic levels. Tongan opposition members blame the transport ministry for shoddy work in certifying the Ashika as seaworthy, and the Cabinet – especially the Prime Minister – for buying the vessel in the first place. The Patterson Brothers, former owners of the Princess Ashika, blame the Government-owned Shipping Corporation of Polynesia (SCP) for sending its training crew home two weeks into a two-month handover course. The captain blames the SCP for forcing him to sail in an unseaworthy vessel, while SCP chief John Jonesse in turn blames the captain for putting his vessel and passenger in mortal danger.

Summing up the circus of finger-pointing and ducking for cover is a press statement from Fiji: "The Fiji Government has confirmed that it immediately absolves Fiji from any responsibilities to do with Princess Ashika." The flight from responsibility is understandable; the speed of the ferry sinking shocked even experienced seamen. 'Uata, who works for a rival ferry company, says: "People died not because the boat sunk, a lot of vessels sink, and nobody dies. What caused the deaths of the people was the speed by which it sank. We've seen the Titanic, the movie, that took time to sink."

Survivors report crew-members frantically trying to bail out water an hour before the sinking, and that while vehicles were lashed down in the cargo hold, other cargo – including large stacks of timber – was not. A crew-member of another ferry says the Ashika was dangerously low in the water before it even accepted cargo for its final and fateful voyage, and that bilge pumps had been running most of the weekend prior to departure to clear flooded compartments.

At 11:50pm, the majority of passengers were asleep in the upstairs passenger lounge. The vessel's captain sent a frantic mayday call while crew members shouted for people to abandon ship only a few minutes before the ship disappeared beneath the waves. The Ashika had eight lifeboats, each capable of carrying 25 people. One went down with the ship. One bobbed to the surface, empty. There was only time for 54 people – all men – to reach the lifeboats and float for several hours until they were rescued.

The remaining 95 passengers, including all the women and children aboard, didn't stand a chance. Part of the finger pointing includes allegations – some from people who own ferries that compete against the SCP – that the Ashika lacked certification (the maritime equivalent of a Warrant of Fitness) and was not insured. But a reliable source with direct knowledge of the case said the Princess Ashika was insured and had valid surveying certificates issued in both Fiji and Tonga.

Whether surveyors overlooked structural problems – meaning the certificates themselves amounted to a rubber stamp – is still an open question that three official inquiries are now investigating. While police, the Tongan parliament and a Royal Commission have announced they will be investigating the sinking of the Princess Ashika, a clearer picture is emerging of red flags that were ignored in favour of cost-cutting.

The ferry emerged gleaming and new from the Takamatsu shipyards in Japan in 1972. It was then named the Olive Maru. In 1985, the vessel was bought by a Fijian-Indian businessman who rechristened the ferry Princess Ashika, using the name of his then-baby daughter, and put it to use running short-haul daily commutes around Fiji. After the 1987 coup, the owner left the country and sold the Ashika to the Patterson Brothers.

The tragedy is not the first time ships associated with this company have sunk. According to a 2001 Fiji travel guidebook : "In 1997 the Patterson ferry Jubilee was scuttled by its crew after being declared unfit for service." And in 2003 the MV Ovalau sank without loss of life. The Ashika shared the same route as the Ovalau and picked up many of the surviving passengers.

An inquiry at the time headed by Justice Devendra Pathik found the Patterson Brothers had 'ignored the warning and danger signs of hull weakness." Asked about the Jubilee, George Patterson said, "I don't want to talk about that," and hung up.

While in Fiji the Ashika performed only short-haul operations, returning daily to home port. How this elderly vessel ended up being pressed into service plying a much longer route in Tonga – traversing the entire chain in voyages that would last over a week – is the result of a broken engine and political penny-pinching.

In 2008 the Japanese Government announced, as part of an aid deal, it would build a new ferry for Tonga. Later that year SPC ferry MV Olovaha developed engine problems and was forced out of action. Tonga took ownership of the Princess Ashika as a stop-gap measure, expecting it to last only the 18 months before the Japanese-built replacement arrived in late 2010. The Ashika lasted barely a month.

The Herald on Sunday understands the Tongan Government paid only $550,000 for the Ashika, a figure that surprised several maritime sources. A New Zealand harbour master said he is aware of a similar vessel to the Ashika on sale for $11 million. "It's a bit bigger, and it was built it 2005," he says. The Japanese government is spending $24m on the new vessel. "You get what you pay for," says the harbour master. "It's buyer beware."

Despite the rock-bottom price, SPC chief John Jonesse announced when Tonga took control of the Ashika in June that the ferry was in very good condition and had been highly maintained for years. Jonesse, a former Christchurch businessman who ran a Japanese restaurant, says he is not able to discuss any matter relating to the Ashika because a Royal Commission was now considering the matter. "I don't want to appear unco-operative. At the present moment we're all acting on certain instructions and those instructions are what we have to follow," he says.

Jonesse told the Press he was "under the hammer" from New Zealand media and said he knew of no problems that may have caused the Ashika to sink. Prime Minister Sevele also declined an interview with the Herald on Sunday, saying that he didn't want to prejudice the upcoming Royal Commission investigation.

The Royal Commission, to be chaired by respected jurist Justice Warwick Andrew, is only one body of many looking into the sinking of the Ashika. The Tongan police force, under the oversight of New Zealand-born Police Commissioners Chris Kelly, is conducting its own inquiry and the Tongan Parliament has formed a select committee to look into the sinking.

It is understood former Maritime New Zealand director Russell Kilvington has been headhunted by the Tongan Ministry of Transport to help with inquiries. Kilvington left for Tonga last week and is considered a likely candidate to join the Royal Commission, due to complete a provisional draft by November 30.

Until then, given the cost of raising the ferry and recovering the bodies – estimated to be $25 million, equivalent to a fifth of the Tongan Government's annual revenue – the Ashika is likely to remain undisturbed, a submerged coffin sitting upright on a sandy bottom.

- Herald on Sunday

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