It looks very odd

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva (3rd from right) and cabinet ministers. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

“It looks very odd,” exclaimed Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, Tonga’s very own Dear Leader.  Speaking to the media at his legendary imagine I’m running a White House Press Conference, he blurted out an idea off the top of his head.  It read as if the U.S. President Donald J. Trump had sent a random Tweet to his 27.4 million followers @realDonaldTrump.

“There will be side-walks all the way from town to the airport!”  Bravo, said no journalist ever.  Hurrah for Dear Leader, said no cabinet minister ever.  Although the ministerial line up did excel at looking very odd, very bored, and very uncomfortable as if someone, someone, may have been spinning whoppers.

Dear Leader had staged a presser on hit and miss development dreams he’d been having on this, that, and anything to avoid the media’s hard questions about the real issue of gambling, which was illegal in Tonga.

Here was the next episode of trouble under the Dear Leader regime.  A series of seismic whoppers had let slip from Government’s backside and landed smack in news headlines causing a public stink.  A loose bottom had fallen out of a defective state vessel.

Someone, someone, had leaked the Finance Minister Tevita Lavemaau’s letter to Dr Ronald D. Pate of Red Warrior Entertainment LLC and Mr ‘Epeli Taione of Tavake Tamafua Tourism Investment Project.  Tongan reporters were all over the story listing it as high national interest.  

 

I refer to His Majesty’s Cabinet decision No. 1194 made on the 24th November 2016, whereby the proposal from the Tavake Tamafua Tourism Investment Project was approved and given full support by the Government of Tonga.

Tevita Lavemaau

 

Tonga’s Finance Minister Tevita Lavemaau. Photograph: Melino Maka

What did the “proposal” that “was approved and given full support by the Government of Tonga” amount to?  The exclusive “right for a Casino and Gambling License to the Red Warrior Entertainment Group LLC,” which meant returns for the company, while Tongan citizens suffered losses.

 

I am pleased to inform you that the Government of Tonga, will grant and guarantee an exclusivity right for a Casino and Gambling License to the Red Warrior Group LLC.

Tevita Lavemaau

 

Barbara Dreaver of TV One News did a feature story in 2016 on Donald Pate’s casino empire.  The U.S. limited liability company looked a doubtful card dealer on the business table.

 

Red Warrior Entertainment and its American Indian owner Ronald Pate offer religion, gambling, and film making, promising much but delivering little.  There’s sparse information about his self-proclaimed multi-national company.

Barbara Dreaver

 

Professor Max Abbott of Auckland University of Technology confirmed Dreaver’s report.  His research looked into problem gambling as an addictive behaviour in that debt causes social ills and financial ruin for Maori and Pacific communities.

 

I think it’s very, very dubious.  Unless there are other organisations by the same name, I think it would lead one to be suspicious.  The Government of Tonga has said it hasn’t given permission to set up the casino so it’s a little ambiguous as to what’s going on.

Professor Max Abbott

 

Tonga had two tangled matters to be separated out and examined.  First there was the question of legality.  Was it legal for government to grant an exclusive right “for a Casino and Gambling License” considering that gambling was outlawed in Tonga?

This triggered another query about lending the project government backing.  At the date of Lavemaau’s letter on November 24th 2016, the Tavake Tamafua Tourism Investment Project was not registered in Tonga as an actual business.  Was that an oversight on government’s part, or did it not matter to the Pohiva administration?

The second issue was that problem gambling could harm the moral fabric of Tongan society.  Listing the consequences was boundless: compulsive gambling, intergeneration addiction, debt, depression, and the breakdown of families, communities, whole cultures, societies, and their ways of life.

Compounding this predicament was something more sinister: the illegal transnational business of human trafficking for prostitution syndicates.

Tonga’s Police Minister Mateni Tapueluelu and Lord Fusitu’a, Tonga’s Noble MP for the Niua Islands. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

It was said the project would ban Tongans from the casino, which in itself undermined the democratic principle of equal rights for Tongan citizens.

Would Tongans with overseas citizenship be excluded from the casino?  If government did so, this very act resembled racial discrimination.  Therefore, it appeared that the commercial venture targeted Chinese tourists.

For Pacific Island countries, the serious subject of sex trafficking from Asia and Southeast Asia posed the greatest national security challenge to control.  Limited information was shared across borders, and small island states had scanty resources to carry out effective monitoring.

Tonga was no stranger to prostitutes illegally smuggled into the country to service construction workers contracted to build infrastructure via EXIM Bank soft loans and China aid.

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

 

 

Returning as a Tonga delegate to the 2017 Asian Parliamentarians Forum on combatting human trafficking held in Bangkok from March 21st to the 22nd, Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands, spoke up on Radio Tonga.  

 

Tonga, we have legislation that deals with this, and there was a court case a few years back which dealt with this.  There have been a few incidents of human trafficking in Tonga and it is something which we have to deal with.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

What court case was Fusitu’a referring to?  On April 29th 2011, Telesia Adams reported for Taimi Media Network on Liu Lirong, a Chinese national in Tonga convicted of three crimes – human trafficking, running a brothel, and trading in a prostitution business.

 

Liu Lirong was charged and has been convicted of all seven counts, including four for trafficking persons into Tonga, one for keeping a brothel and two for trading in prostitution.  The case allegedly happened over the months of June and July 2009.

Telesia Adams

 

In February 2012, ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, the Director of Tonga’s Women and Children’s Crisis Centre shared her insights on Radio Australia, stressing the sobering details about an export sex industry.

The 2011 court case was but one incident blown open by a police investigation and ensuing charges.  But what backroom businesses lay behind the doors of “Asian restaurants” in Tonga?  Illegal brothels, it was suspected.

 

We’ve heard there are a lot of Asian restaurants that have been setup throughout the country as a front face to the public, but what’s going on behind the walls of the restaurant is completely something different.  Some brothels are being operated, but we need the skills and the expertise in Tonga to be able to pick up on these cases.  I’ve travelled through a few different island countries, and it’s the same stories we’re hearing on the ground.  Asian restaurants being setup all over the Pacific with this, something else completely different going on behind the walls.

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki

 

Did Tonga have the manpower and resources to apprehend Asian prostitution rings?  Were the Tonga Police sufficiently funded to prevent an increase in transnational sex trafficking as well as local Tongan prostitution circles that could result?

Lord Fusitu’a was frank in his views: “having the legislation there is not good enough” if the state does not have the capacity for law enforcement aimed at stopping human trafficking in all its forms – transnational and within the country.

 

Having the legislation there is not good enough.  You have to ensure that there’s implementation and operational enforcement.  There needs to be monitoring enforced within Tonga both with transnational and intra-national [within the country] trafficking.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

There are seven standing committees in Tonga’s parliamentary system.  Which of these is responsible for deliberating and reporting on state corruption with regard to the Finance Minister Lavemaau’s letter, in public circulation, consenting to an illegal casino?

We mean to say, it is unlikely Pohiva’s cabinet would investigate themselves of allegations that government had breached the law.  Short answer: the anti-corruption committee chaired by Lord Fusitu’a.

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Complicating matters was that an Anti-Corruption Commissioner had not been appointed, although the Anti-Corruption Commissioner Act 2007 was a decade old.

In 2016, the Pohiva administration passed a bill through the House with the intention to change the appointments process of the Anti-Corruption Commissioner Act 2007.  The government wanted parliament to appoint the commissioner, instead of the King in Privy Council. 

Fusitu’a, the Noble MP for the Niua Islands, strongly objected to the law change arguing that parliament would politicise the appointment.  This Noble from the North saw that the office for an anti-corruption commission would no longer operate independently of government if government was to be the commissioner’s boss, manager, and employer.

In the end, a commissioner’s appointment arrived at a stalemate.  On one side of the dispute was the Pohiva government, refusing to accept that Privy Council selects an anti-corruption commissioner.  The King on the other hand did not assent to the amended act, so it was not sanctioned into law.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohva. Photograph: Getty/Otago Daily Times.

State corruption in Tonga has amplified.  Undoubtedly it will worsen if the casino goes ahead.  Because here’s the thing.  Speculation: Prime Minister Pohiva publicly avowed the deal is off.

Fact: Tonga’s Finance Minister Lavemaau signed a letter granting Red Warrior Entertainment LLC the exclusive right to hold a casino license and operate a gambling business in Tonga.

Analysis: Pohiva’s media statement is contrary to what’s documented on state letterhead, on public record.

“It looks very odd” is an understatement.  From the viewpoint of Tongans objecting to the casino, the current circumstances look like an abuse of state power, period.

Lord Fusitu’a (centre), Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

If ever there was a need for Tonga’s membership to the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), particularly the anti-corruption strategy for the six member states that comprise of the Oceania Chapter, it’s right now.

GOPAC’s vision “to achieve accountability and transparency through effective anti-corruption mechanisms” is the first step.

 

GOPAC’s vision is to achieve accountability and transparency through effective anti-corruption mechanisms and inclusive participation and cooperation between parliaments, government and civil society.

 

Importantly for Tonga, the method by which the vision is acted on is vital to eradicating state corruption.  The measuring stick for assessing whether or not our country’s parliamentary procedures and laws against corruption actually work lies in the institutional structure.

 

GOPAC’s mission is to assist and support parliamentarians in their advocacy and legislation to make governments accountable and transparent.

 

Tonga’s GOPAC Chair is Lord Fusitu’a, a role which is strategically linked to his chairmanship of parliament’s standing committee on anti-corruption.  In national politics, the anti-corruption committee is part of the state process our small island nation has to protect Tongans from government corruption.

We emphasise part of the state process for a reason.  Tonga has not ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption 2003.  Tonga has not appointed an anti-corruption commissioner under the Anti-Corruption Commissioner Act 2007.

The chances of Tonga’s anti-corruption machinery being completed under the Pohiva regime?  Doubtful.

Devoid of these critical “anti-corruption mechanisms” – ratification of the UN convention and an anti-corruption commissioner – Tonga’s parliamentary committee on anti-corruption has limited power to hold the government to account.

The most the committee could do is make a recommendation to parliament that the anti-corruption commissioner investigate the case, given there was sufficient evidence to suggest there’s a case to answer.  But there’s no anti-corruption commissioner in Tonga.  The process is cut short.

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fusitu’a

To recap our foreground question: under the Anti-Corruption Commissioner Act 2007, was the authority of the state misused when the Pohiva government granted a casino license to Red Warrior Entertainment LLC?

Tongan nationals at home and abroad have a democratic right to know the answer.  But if the entire apparatus of “anti-corruption mechanisms” is not instated by law, policy, and process, then how can the people and our country be adequately safeguarded from government corruption?

Authors

Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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