Police block Tongan protest

By Derek Cheng, Angela Gregory

Tempers flared last night outside the King of Tonga's Epsom home as a police barricade prevented protesters from entering.

In the latest action supporting pay rises for 3000 civil servants in Tonga, more than 50 protesters gathered about 5pm hoping for face-to-face talks with King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

When it became apparent the King was not going to meet them, a group tried to force their way past about 30 police officers barricading the entrance to the King's driveway.

Inspector Jim Wilson said there were no injuries, describing it as a "token gesture for the media".

But in a repeat of ugly fighting on Sunday, a scuffle broke out among some protesters and royal staff.

Police arrested five people - three men for disorderly behaviour and two women for fighting. Mr Wilson said all were released last night.

Protest leader Alan Taione then led the protesters, including about 10 children, and sat them 2m in front of the police barricade.

They chanted and sang before police forced them back behind a line of cones on the other side of the road.

Mr Wilson said the protesters were "largely compliant with our wishes".

Late last night Mr Taione said he was frustrated and sad. "The secretary assured and promised we would see [the King] today. But it's all lies. It's the end of the road."

He would discuss with protesters whether it was worth continuing action, he said.

Mr Taione, an Auckland mechanic, gained media attention last February when he was arrested in Tonga for distributing copies of a banned newspaper that was critical of the royal family.

The prosecution was eventually dropped after the bans were found to be unconstitutional, and Mr Taione was awarded a Pacific Islands Media Freedom Award for his role in defending an independent press.

An Auckland Tongan community spokesman, Langitoto Helu, the nephew of Tonga's respected democracy pioneer Professor Futa Helu, said he was upset at the violence that erupted on Sunday.

"We feel embarrassed by his [Mr Taione's] behaviour. We would rather see things done more peacefully through non-violent intelligent dialogue."

But Auckland University lecturer on Pacific political economies, Dr Okusi Mahina, said Mr Taione had quiet support from most Tongans, who believed someone had to do the "dirty job".

A committee of Tongan civil servants are to travel to Auckland on Friday to meet the local community and hold a prayer meeting.

HELP OFFERED

Foreign Minister Phil Goff says he remains committed to sending an experienced mediator to Nuku'alofa to help to resolve the dispute should the Tongan Government accept the offer.

Mr Goff says reports he has received do not suggest Tonga is about to erupt into major violence.

"But there have been disturbances ... For a small society that sort of dispute puts on a lot of pressure."

Mr Goff says visitors are warned there may be difficulty in some sectors such as medical services.

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