Tonga's Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pōhiva dies

Tongan Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pōhiva has died.

Melino Maka from the Tongan Advisory Council has confirmed to Newshub the 78-year-old's death.

He had been medevaced to Auckland Hospital on Wednesday afternoon with pneumonia.

Tongan Parliament has been deferred indefinitely as a result of Pōhiva's death.

The pro-democracy campaigner was the Tongan Parliament's longest-serving people's representative, having served since 1987.

He has has constantly challenged the Tongan monarchy and called for democracy to be installed in the island nation. He was charged with sedition in 2002 over an article published alleging the King had a secret fortune, but was acquitted by a jury.

In 2008, King George Tupou V moved to abandon many of the monarch's powers, including his ability to choose the Prime Minister.

Pōhiva was elected Prime Minister in 2014. He was the first commoner to be elected by Parliament.

He was reelected in 2017 as Prime Minister. It came after Tongan King George Tupou VI took the unprecedented step to intervene and dissolve Parliament.

The King made the move after receiving a series of complaints from Parliament's speaker, one of which claimed that Pōhiva was trying to strip away power from the Monarchy.

At the time, Massey University's Pasifika director, associate professor Malakai Koloamatangi, told Newshub Pōhiva's win suggested a shift in Tonga that was seeing the power being given to the people. 

"I think what Pōhiva has tried to do over the years is give more power to the people. I don't think there's anything sinister in that. I see it as a continued evolution of power. It's part of the King becoming more ceremonial."

Before moving into politics, Pōhiva worked as a history and sociology teacher at the University of South Pacific.

He was awarded the Defender of Democracy award in 2013 by the Parliamentarians for Global Action group. He was honoured for his work in establishing the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands.

His wife, Neomai, died in 2018.

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.

Tributes flow in

 

Tributes to Pōhiva quickly began appearing on social media. 

New Zealand's Minister for Ethnic Communities Jenny Salesa tweeted: "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, Jenny Salesa."

Aupito William Sio, the Minister for Pacific Peoples, told Newshub Pōhiva would be missed.

"Personally, I always found my engagement with him to be warm. He was always willing to share his passion for issues, his passion for the Pacific region. 

"So I am going to sorely miss a friend.

Sio said he was down-to-earth and felt as "his calling was to champion the principles of democracy that were appropriate for Tonga."

Maka also said he sent his thoughts and prayers.

"We lost one of our leaders and a founder of democracy in Tonga. It is time like this you want to extend your thoughts and your prayers to the family."

Kiwi politicians spoke on his death in Parliament on Thursday.

"I move that this House express its sadness at the passing of the Prime minister of Tonga," said Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis.

"Prime Minister Pōhiva was an elder statesman of the Pacific and a great friend to New Zealand... he will be remembered for his life-long committment to championing democracy."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "terribly saddened".

"Terribly saddened to hear of the passing of Tongan Prime Minister, the Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva," he said.

"He was a passionate advocate for his people, for his beloved Tonga & our Pacific family. Jenny & I send our condolences to his family, as well as the Government and the people of Tonga."

The French embassy in Fiji sent condolences to his family and the Kingdom of Tonga, while writer Michael Field described him as "remarkable".

Tommy Remengesau Jr, the President of the Republic of Palau, tweeted his sincere condolences.

Newshub.

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