By TAPU MISA

Newspaper editor and publisher Kalafi Moala has done a very un-Tongan thing in writing Island Kingdom Strikes Back.

In a country where the ageing monarch and his children are treated with the kind of reverence once reserved for gods, Moala's book comes as a shock.

It's not so much that what he writes is unknown to Tongans - because, thanks largely to the efforts of his newspaper, Taimi 'o Tonga, most Tongans are well acquainted with the excesses of the royal family and the failures of their political leaders.

It is that a Tongan should be prepared to turn his back on the constraints of culture and deliver a blisteringly honest and courageous account of everything that is wrong with the South Pacific's only island kingdom. That includes unprecedented public criticism of Tonga's near absolute monarch, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, as a dreamer who has lost the country's plot, if it ever had one.

Moala quotes the late Bishop Finau saying that Tongans are inclined to be "more Tongan than truthful" when it comes to defence of king and country.

Many Tongans will agree with what Moala has written but be astounded at his willingness to share it with the international community.

Moala already knows, of course, about the likely consequences of speaking out. Auckland-based these days - Taimi is published here - he's been banned several times from the country of his birth and now needs special permission to enter.

Moala launched Taimi in 1989, not long after returning to Tonga after 25 years of living in America and parts of Asia. He imagined himself slotting back into his homeland, but found himself instead going through the kind of culture shock he'd experienced when he first arrived in Auckland at 17. If anything, the return home was a much greater challenge.

But Tonga - with its abuses of power and a seemingly endless succession of scandals - proved rich fodder for his newspaper.

Taimi wasn't - and still isn't - the flashest-looking paper around. But Moala's determination to expose the corrupt goings-on in the kingdom has played a crucial role in raising political awareness among Tongans.

It also made him highly unpopular with the establishment, in particular Police Minister Clive Edwards, a former Auckland lawyer dubbed "the hangman".

Matters came to a head in September 1996 when Moala, his deputy Filo 'Akauola and the leading pro-democracy MP, 'Akilisi Pohiva, were hauled up before Parliament for an extraordinary "trial", during which the Legislative Assembly acted as plaintiff and judge.

The three were jailed for a month, and Moala was forced to communicate with his newspaper and the outside world through his "toilet paper letters", smuggled out by relatives.

Their crime? Taimi had reported on a letter of motion seeking the impeachment of the Minister of Justice. The story was true but the Speaker deemed it to be in contempt of Parliament because the letter hadn't technically been tabled before Taimi hit the streets. That's because the acting Speaker had kept it in his briefcase for a week.

Moala's book is a who's who of Tongan society and politics. It is, writes Tongan academic Futa Helu, "the bitterest and hardest hitting indictment ever penned of [Tongan] society, its King and supporters, the Royal Family and the nobility".

This is an important book, more so because it's written by a Tongan who clearly loves his country and people, but isn't blind to the need for change. It's also a very good read.

Pacmedia Publishers

$39.95

* Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist.