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Country profile - Tonga

Tonga flag
A group of more than 170 islands spread over an area of the South Pacific roughly the size of Japan, Tonga is the last Polynesian monarchy.

A deeply conservative, Christian country, it is ruled by a king supported by hereditary noblemen who together have a perpetual majority in parliament, electing or appointing 21 of its 30 members.

A former British protectorate, Tonga became fully independent in 1970, though it was never formally colonised.

Tonga has no strategic or mineral resources and relies on agriculture, fishing and the money sent home by Tongans living abroad, many of them in New Zealand. Unemployment is high, particularly among the young.

Endowed with tropical beaches, rainforest, active volcanoes and ideal diving conditions, it has a developing tourist industry, its main source of hard currency.

Almost all Tongans are Polynesian and its population has remained largely untouched by immigration. This has made it ideal for genetic research into the causes of common diseases.

Although Tonga has a highly traditional society, some young, Western-educated Tongans have called for a new, more democratic constitution that would allow for direct elections to all parliamentary seats while retaining a titular monarchy.

A tentative step towards reform was taken in early 2005 when elected MPs were appointed to the cabinet for the first time. Previously, all cabinet members had been handpicked by the king from outside parliament.

But demands for change have become stronger. A public sector strike in 2005, marked by major street demonstrations, expanded into a campaign for political reform. In November 2006, riots erupted in the capital. Eight people were killed and much of the capital's business district was destroyed.

Additional information
Full name: Kingdom of Tonga
Population: 100,000 (UN, 2007)
Capital: Nuku'alofa
Area: 748 sq km (289 sq miles)
Major languages: Tongan, English
Major religions: Christianity
Monetary unit: 1 pa'anga = 100 seniti
Main exports: Fish, pumpkins, coconut products, vanilla beans
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