King's body to lie in state

The body of Tonga's king, the fourth-longest reigning monarch in the world, will lie in state in Auckland tomorrow before being flown to his island home on Wednesday.

Crown Prince Tupouto'a has already been sworn in as king after the death of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, aged 88.

But a full coronation for Tonga's new king could be at least a year away, said the Lord Chamberlain, the Honourable Noble Fielakepa.

Until then "he will be effectively the King," he said.

An official period of mourning has begun in the islands which awoke this morning to news of the king's death broadcast on Radio Tonga.

The body of the king, a towering but conservative presence in his kingdom who opposed moves to democracy, will lie in state in his residence in Auckland, Atalanga, on Tuesday then be returned to Tonga on Wednesday.

The Tongan government confirmed the King died at 11.34pm last night in Auckland's Mercy Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for significant periods over the last year.

He was in no pain and yesterday, a few hours before he died, he was conscious and talking to family members, said a statement.

Details of the state funeral were yet to finalised.

"He will be lying in state and then have a state funeral but as for timing in Nuku'alofa, I believe the government will want to give time for overseas dignitaries who may want to pay their respects," the Lord Chamberlain said.

"We are getting a lot of messages of condolences from overseas governments and from the people of many countries.

Wheelchair-bound King Tupou suffered from heart problems and had been receiving long-term medical care in Auckland. He was well enough to return to Tonga for celebrations of his 88th birthday in early July, before returning to an Auckland hospital.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said her thoughts were with the king's family and the people of Tonga.

"The king was very much loved in Tonga and I know there will be huge ceremonies back there when the king's body arrives home. So our thoughts are with all of them at this time," she said.

The death of the king would leave a "huge gap" in Tongan society, said Melino Maka, the chairman of the Tongan Advisory Council in New Zealand.

"He was held not only with respect but he was much loved. He was the founder of modern Tonga," Mr Maka said.

"[King Tupou] has transformed Tonga from a village-based economy to a regional and international trade economy."

Mr Maka said the king died with his daughter at his side.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV came to power in 1965 after his mother, Queen Salote, died of cancer.

King Tupou is married to Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho Ahome'e, 80. The couple have four children.

As the king's health deteriorated in recent times, his eldest son and heir, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, has become the power behind the throne.

The Tongan royal family only just ended 10 days of mourning in early August after one of the king's nephews was killed, along with his princess wife, in a car crash in San Francisco in July.

Tonga is the South Pacific's last monarchy, where the royal family controls a semi-feudal political system.

King Tupou IV has ruled the group of 170 coral islands, sprinkled over the South Pacific about 2000km north of New Zealand, since 1965.

The king made international headlines in 1976 when he became the world's heaviest monarch, tipping the Tonga airport scales, the only scales in the country that could hold him, at 209 kg. Obesity is a major problem in the island kingdom.

The Guiness World Records says the king was reported to have slimmed down to 139kg by 1985. By 1998 he had lost further weight.

Tongan politics, strongly in the hands of the royal family, has been challenged in recent years by a pro-democracy movement. Some liberalisation has occurred. The country, beset by poverty, has faced unrest, fuelled by dissatisfaction with the monarchial rule and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. In May 2005 an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to demand democracy and public ownership of key assets.

The economy depends on subsistence farming, tourism and fishing as well as remittances from Tongans living abroad, mainly in New Zealand, Australia and the US.


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