Grief turns to Anger in Tonga -- UPDATED

For the most part, Tongans are a happy people who love to laugh and they take most things in stride. “Sai pe” may be the most uttered phrase in the Kingdom and it simply means “It’s Okay”. But things are not “sai pe” in Tonga today. The grief that first hit the country when the MV Princess Ashika ferry sank last week is now turning to anger.

All over Vava’u, the destination point for the Ashika, people are asking how could this happen and why did our Government take this boat and put it into service when it was so old? The Ashika was older than the boat it replaced. Another story being reported here says the Government was urged NOT to put this boat into service because it did not pass safety checks.

There is also a lot of anger directed toward the King. In Tonga, it is illegal to criticize the King in public or to print anything negative about him. A few years ago, the owner of one of the Independent newspapers was jailed for making negative comments about the Government.

But that’s not stopping Tongans now. The anger today is because just after the ferry sank, the King left the country for a vacation in Scotland. It seems abhorrent to the Tongans that their King would abandon them like this in a time of crisis.

When the survivors of the ferry disaster arrived back to the main island of Tongatapu, they were not consoled by the King but instead met by his sister, the Princess. The King has not issued any statements about the disaster and has done nothing to show support for the victims and their families.

Complicating things ever more, the Prime Minister of Tonga was out of the country at a meeting in Australia when the boat sank, but instead of returning to Tonga immediately, he stayed at the Pacific Forum meeting saying he had important agreements to work out that would benefit Tonga in the future.

Even in peaceful Vava’u, some Tongans are talking about protests and an Australian news organization reported that an angry crowd gathered in Nuku’alofa outside the offices of the shipping company that operated the ferry. That should make people nervous as Nuku’alofa is just now being re-built following riots in 2006 by people unhappy with the King and his government.

As is typical in Tonga, a lot of the information is passed through word of mouth, in what is often called the “coconut wireless”. That means you hear many different stories about what is actually happening. The official word from the Tongan police is that there are 93 people still missing, most of them women and infants. All but six of the missing are Tongans. (UPDATE: 95 people are presumed dead out of 141 who were on board the ship.)

In villages around Vava’u, the impact is particularly hard. In one village of just over 100 people, six people are presumed dead…meaning the ferry disaster has wiped out 6% of the entire village’s population. There are similar stories every where in Vava'u. Just about everyone either knows or is related to someone who was on that boat.

So far just two bodies have been recoved. The boat sits in water that ranges from 36 to 110 meters deep, much of it too deep for divers.

There is also worry about how a small place like Vava’u is going to handle so many funerals. There is talk of having one large funeral for everyone instead of many smaller services. And Tongans want to know who is going to pay for the services. Funerals are very expensive and Tongan families are expected to feed everyone who shows up and to give gifts to those who attend. This could be a major financial hit in an already struggling economy.

While it is extremely unlikely that there are any survivors, some families are hoping that perhaps their relatives never got on the ferry.

In addition to being the primary way that Tongans travel between the islands, the ferry is also the way that most food and freight get to the outer islands. On board the ferry when it sank was an ambulance and medical supplies donated by a US organization to provide emergency transportation for the hospital here in Vava’u.

Some speculate the ferry disaster will serve as a “wake-up” call for Tonga and could help the pro-democracy movement gain momentum, especially if it is determined the King’s government allowed this ship to sail knowing it was unsafe. If that’s the case, it certainly was not “sai pe”.

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  1. One of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers was at the rally mentioned above. He sent me the following note about it on e-mail and I thought it was worth sharing.

    "they were organized and orderly ... when spoken to ... of course they were angry ... A support trailer was set up and there were counselors there to help ...still; there are so many unanswered questions; BUT accident investigations take months ... and it would be irresponsible to make definitive comments at this time !!!!!"