Washington International Law Journal


The Kingdom of Tonga, a South Pacific country, erupted in violent pro-democracy riots in late 2006 after decades of political unease. Tonga’s people are divided into two main classes: the nobles and the commoners. These two classes have long differed in political and land rights in a hierarchy that is typical of chiefdoms such as Tonga. Tonga’s government has attempted to deal with the sometimes violent, commoner-led pro-democracy movement by amending its Constitution to allow commoners to vote for more of the members of the Legislative Assembly. The resulting government and the noblemen have not, however, shown a commitment to land reform in favor of commoners, and it is unlikely that the recent amendments will result in changes to the land tenure system. In Tonga, the rising population and declining land productivity within a context of insecure land rights have prompted individuals to engage in conflict with the government and nobility, both of which have become less powerful. Evolutionary ecology predicts this result, and, in conjunction with insights from economics, is also a fertile approach for finding solutions to political instability. This comment argues that only extensive land reform will likely end political violence in Tonga. It suggests changes in the Constitution and the Land Act to end or reduce the nobles’ power over commoner lands, to allow for more commoners to occupy land, and to improve the productivity of commoner lands. These changes would require Tongans to place individual liberties above some cultural traditions.

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