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The Pacific is in mourning after Akilisi Pohiva, the prime minister of Tonga, a long-time pro-democracy campaigner and leader in the fight against climate change, died aged 78.
Pohiva had been ill for the much of the last year and was receiving treatment in New Zealand for liver disease. He was evacuated to Auckland on Wednesday suffering from pneumonia, Radio New Zealand reported. He died on Thursday morning.
Pohiva was a key figure in Tonga’s pro-democracy movement, which saw him regularly clash with Tonga’s monarchy over his more than three decades in politics. In 2014 he became the first commoner in Tonga to be elected to the position of prime minister by Parliament, rather than being appointed to the role by the king.
Over the course of his parliamentary career – which began in 1987 – he was dismissed by the king along with the rest of his party, imprisoned for contempt of parliament, and twice charged with sedition.
Partly because of Pohiva’s push for democratic reforms, Tonga became a constitutional monarchy in 2010 and now has representative elections for parliament, however, reverence for the monarchy remains strong and the country has strict sedition laws.
He was awarded the Defender of Democracy Award in 2013 by the Parliamentarians for Global Action, the first Pacific Islander to receive the prize.
On Thursday local media reported that Tongan parliament had been suspended indefinitely in light of the news.
Tributes were paid to the prime minister from across the region, including from Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama who wrote that Pohiva “inspired the world with raw emotion at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu which, despite his health, he attended in recognition of the urgency of climate action. We must honour his legacy by continuing this fight.” and Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, who said: “My condolences for a good friend and principled leader.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, tweeted: “Saddened to hear of the passing of Prime Minister of Tonga Akilisi Pohiva. He was a respected leader in the Pacific, and a good friend to Australia. My deepest condolences to his family and the people of the Kingdom of Tonga.”
New Zealand Minister for Ethnic Communities Jenny Salesa said “RIP & my sincerest condolences to Rt Hon ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s family as well as to the Kingdom of Tonga. Such a tremendous loss for all of us Tongans. ‘Ofa moe lotu mei Uelingatoni, Falealea ‘o Nu’usila”.
Head of the European Delegation for the Pacific, Sujiro Seam said “My condolences to the family of the honourable PM of the Kingdom of Tonga.I had the privilege to see him at the last Forum Leaders’ Meeting in Tuvalu, where he kept championing for democracy, climate and Pacific people”.
Despite his ill health, Pohiva attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August, telling the Guardian that he thought this year’s PIF would likely be his last but that he had been determined to attend because of the importance of the summit, especially due to climate change.
“My physical presence in the meetings is significant to me,” he said. “I’m sure it is mostly likely that this will be my last attendance at a forum so it was very important to me to be here.”
Pohiva spoke passionately at the forum about the need for urgent action on the climate crisis, which is already having serious impacts on Pacific nations such as Tuvalu and Tonga, and called for action to end alleged human rights abuses in West Papua.
Tuvaluan prime minister Enele Sopoaga said Pohiva had cried at the leaders’ retreat while talking about two young women who had presented to leaders on Monday about the impacts of the climate crisis.
“The leader of Tonga actually shed tears in front of the leaders for the passion about referring to the presentation of the two young warriors of climate change the other day,” said Sopoaga.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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