With his beloved Tonga on the verge of democratic refor' />

Be careful what you wish for," says Kalafi Moala self-mockingly, "you just might get it."

With his beloved Tonga on the verge of democratic reform, you might forgive the man behind the newspaper that took on the ruling elite for feeling just a little self-satisfied.

The pro-democracy campaigner has, after all, been jailed, barred from his homeland and survived a ban on the distribution of the Taimi o Tonga, the newspaper he launched 20 years ago.

Four years after that ban was overturned, Tonga's new ruler, King George Tupou V, promised to hand over ultimate power to Parliament. A reform commission is now developing the ground rules for elections next year.

The cherished goal is so near that you might expect Moala's new book, In Search of the Friendly Islands, to be an optimistic, even triumphant, reflection on the long crusade and the promised land that awaits.

Yet here is Moala, 60, on Tongan youth: "Our young people are known for their drug dealing and gang associations, their organised crime and violent assault on their victims. Our people are out there among some of the most vicious criminals of any society.

"The hideous growth of violence I have seen in our Tongan society is an indictment on the domination system so deeply rooted in our social structure."

Don't get him started on some fellow pro-democracy campaigners. "The leaders began showing signs of arrogance and personal, selfish ambitions that were not consistent with the principles that had brought the movement into being.

"The oppressed had become the oppressor ... doing the very things that the Government had been criticised for."

Is this former missionary the ultimate party-pooper?

Moala is in Auckland for today's book launch before returning to Nuku'alofa for the Tongan launch - which looms as far more contentious. Not so long ago he was forced to live here after Tongan authorities refused him admission on his American passport (he had lived for three years in San Francisco).

With wife Suliana, he went back to Tonga two years ago, after citizenship laws were eased, to care for his mother, now 81, at their Nuku'alofa home. Their adult children are scattered around the world.

As a measure of the progress Tonga has made, Moala's company has won the management contract for the official, Government-owned newspaper, The Kalonikali (Chronicle) and intends to turn it into Tonga's first English-language newspaper. While Taimi o Tonga's advertising revenue has not been spared the global downturn, it's ticking over while his other focus is the six hours a day of local programming he puts out on the Chinese-owned CCTV channel.

"It's very exciting for me," he says of the Kalonikali bid. "The days of censorship are much more relaxed."

Nuku'alofa, too, is more relaxed. The Black Thursday riots which destroyed businesses and left eight dead on November 16, 2006, was "one of the saddest days of my life," he records in the book.

He rejects the widely-reported view that the riots flowed inevitably from Government intransigence.

"It had nothing to do with reform or with 'the will of the people'," he writes.

"Behind the violent rage that spilled over the streets of Nuku'alofa, where buildings were set on fire and and cars burned in the street, was an organised plan, orchestrated by some of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement."

He blames his former close friend and ally, the pro-democracy MP Akilisi Pohiva - with whom he was once imprisoned - and his colleagues for inciting the riot. "The pro-democracy leaders actually believed they could impose democratic reform by mob force - that the Government might collapse giving way for the King to call an election under a reform agenda."

Moala accuses Pohiva and his extremist supporters of blatantly using unemployed youths who had no interest in politics but were "anticipating a drunken party that involved some violence".

"... Here was a movement I had given years of my life to promote and yet they had done the unimaginable. In one stroke of stupidity, the movement had made itself odious to those who have any sense of morality."

While the book dwells on Black Thursday only briefly, the episode reflects several of its main themes: the violence and domination endemic in Tonga's social structure, political expediency, the loss of the "Tongan way", family breakdown and the erosion of spiritual and moral values.

Moala sees these concerns as major hurdles to Tongan progress. "Reforms to our political and economic systems will not produce the desired social outcome without a truly spiritual reformation that will affect every aspect of Tongan life."

Listening to Moala in the Penrose offices of Taimi o Tonga, it's easy to imagine him sharing his wisdom with the men and women at a village gathering - or in church.

"Some of the things we are trying to put together as solutions to our problems - as wonderful as they may be - there's a tendency for some of these solutions to be quite shallow.

"There's this idea that once we become a democracy our problems will be solved, we will become wealthier, we will become happier, crime will disappear ...

"That's such a misconception and one of my biggest fears is that people's hopes will be built up and they will be deeply disappointed."

The youth problem has the potential to explode, he says. About 2000 young people leave high school every year and many "loaf around, unemployed". The results include drunkenness and a rise in teen pregnancies. The book begins with a depressing catalogue of killings and organised crime involving Tongans in Sydney, Auckland, Nuku'alofa and Mesa, Arizona.

Economic challenges, anti-Chinese sentiment and the breakdown in traditional family structures are all discussed.

As if these are not enough, Moala says Tonga's elitist class system, with its ingrained belief in "place", and a social structure which relies on domination will make the transition to democracy difficult.

Many villages are still coming to grips with what political reform will mean, he says. "They are asking 'what are we changing from, what are we changing into?'

"A lot of people have passively gone along with things and are beginning to ask hard questions. The critical thing is many of the leaders can't answer those questions."

It's not yet clear how far next year's elections will take Tonga towards true democracy, he says, with Parliament still expected to be a mix of elected members, nobles and perhaps royal appointees. "Parliament is going to become supreme, but in what sense is the question."

He advocates a "Tongan solution" in which the Government is finally accountable but which retains "the uniqueness of our culture and social structure".

With no history of party politics, potential parties are beginning to emerge ranging from "extreme reformists" grouped around Pohiva to conservatives wanting to slow the pace of progress. Moala has no desire to run for office.

"I have a definite sense of calling. As a media person I want to try to help in shaping a Tongan solution - putting out information that will contribute to building it up both socially and economically."

Moala's book is more than a reality check for those who see Tongan democracy as an end in itself. He offers solutions - and these require a leap of faith.

He cites the four cornerstone values of faka-Tonga (the Tongan way): respect; maintaining relationship and social obligations; loyalty and passionate commitment; and humility.

Relating to each other as equals will help to reduce violence.

But the book amounts to a call to Tongans to rediscover their spiritual and Christian values - the "divine vocation" which, Moala says, permeates every grouping of human relations, from families to organisations.

Its core purpose, or character, can be good or evil, angelic or demonic.

Democracy, it seems, will not succeed without considerable prayer and a general rediscovery of spiritual values, based in part on faka-Tonga.

"We need to go back to our history, look at some of the things which established us ...

"Can we rediscover the values in our own culture, in our faith-based principles, that have worked for us?"

For those living outside Tonga in particular, he says, the church continues to hold the Tongan social fabric together. "The call for changes to our governing structure ... must involve not only the abandoning and discarding of all that is harmful but must be replaced by that which serves the divine imperative."

Kalafi Moala's In Search of the Friendly Islands is being launched today at the Onehunga Community Centre, 83 Church St, Onehunga, between 11 am and 1pm. It is published in New Zealand by the Pacific Media Centre and, in Hawaii, by Pasifika Foundation Press.

Life and times of a newspaper man
1989: Launches independent newspaper Taimi o Tonga.
1996: Jailed, along with pro-democracy MP Akilisi Pohiva, for 16 days for alleged contempt of Parliament.
2003: Distribution of Taimi o Tonga is banned. The ban is overturned by court action a year later.
2006: Black Thursday riots on November 16 leave eight dead, shops looted and downtown Nuku'alofa ablaze.