Thousands gather as Tongan Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pōhiva laid to rest

There have been unprecedented scenes in Tonga, as the late Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pōhiva was laid to rest on Thursday in the capital, Nuku'alofa. 

Pōhiva became the first commoner to receive a state funeral, and the Government declared a public holiday for the event. 

Draped in Tongan red, Pōhiva's casket was taken from St George government building in the capital to the Centenary Church. 

Thousands of people gathered inside the church and families sat on the grass and gathered on the streets outside to listen to the service.

Reverend Dr 'Ahio, the President of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, told those gathered the late Prime Minister was now embarking on a journey "to another realm". 

"May the grace of God grant you all comfort and strength during this difficult time," he said. 

Vast framed photographs of Pōhiva and colourful wreaths were placed next to his casket as mourners watched on. 

Church leaders spoke of Pōhiva's interest in representing the vulnerable and the need for that legacy to continue. 

Reverend Semisi Fonua, President of the Free Church of Tonga, told those gathered, "We share the responsibility, together with the late Prime Minister 'Akilisi, in keeping the world looking after the people."

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 28:  Tongan Prime Minister Samuela 'Akilisi Pohiva speaks to media at Government House on July 28, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for The Department of Internal Affairs )
Photo credit: Getty.

Born in the Ha'apai island group, Pōhiva was a teacher, journalist and democracy activist. 

He first entered Parliament in 1987, and was a key figure in Tonga's democracy movement. A stanch critic of the Monarchy, he was twice arrested for sedition. 

In 2014, he became the first commoner to be elected Prime Minister. 

But in mid 2017, Pōhiva was effectively forced out of office after Parliament was dissolved by King Tupou VI, amid claims Pōhiva was trying to dilute his powers. 

However, just a few months later, Pōhiva was re-elected as Prime Minister in a landslide victory at the general election. 

New Zealand's first Tongan-born Cabinet Minister, Jenny Salesa, who attended Thursday's state funeral in the capital, likened the event to previous state funerals for Tongan royalty. 

Salesa, who's Minister for Ethnic Communities told Newshub it was a special event to be part of. 

"The last funeral that I came to represent my family at was the late Queen when she passed away about two years ago, and this has been a similar experience for me where everyone has come together in mourning."

Salesa said Pōhiva was a much-loved leader & champion of democracy who would be missed by many. 

Jenny Salesa.
Jenny Salesa. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

After the church service, Pōhiva's casket was taken to the cemetery, escorted by police, politicians and members of the royal family. 

Hundreds of immaculately-dressed school children sat on the roadside, marking the procession's route through the capital. The Last Post could be heard as Pōhiva's casket was carried to its final resting place. 

Mele Fonua, a youth advocate, said Pōhiva was an inspiring individual.

"What I will always remember about the man was was that he was a hero, he was couragous in standing up to the bullies and fighting for what was right".

While Pōhiva often clashed with the Tongan Royal Family, the royals actually played a key role in the last few days of national mourning. 

Princess Latufuipeka Tuku'aho kept vigil at Pōhiva's coffin in the days before his burial. 

Tonga TV broadcast Thursday's funeral service and burial live on Facebook, allowing thousands more to watch events unfold. 

"Our most loving PM ever," read one message. Another user, watching from the United States wrote: "Thank You for a job well done and may the Holy Spirit stay upon your family". 

Pōhiva, who had suffered liver complications and pneumonia before his death, was 78. 


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