According to reports this morning, Tonga’s international airport has been re-opened following the arrival on Saturday of a contingent of Australian and New Zealand troops to help restore order after pro-democracy riots last week left eight people dead in the capital Nuku’alofa.

The operation has shown an admirable readiness on the part of Australia’s bloated military, but it raises some uncomfortable questions about the government’s priorities for using it.

Recall the crisis in Fiji at the beginning of this month, when the prime minister ostentatiously refused to promise military assistance to Fiji’s elected government, then threatened with a military coup. Australian “gunboats” were on hand to evacuate our own citizens, not to help the Fijians.

The government then was officially silent on the question of military assistance, but since there would be no point in promising such assistance without doing so publicly – the aim was to try to deter a coup – it’s a safe bet that no promise was made.

However, when it’s a semi-feudal government threatened by pro-democracy forces, Australian help was very quickly forthcoming. Whose side are we on here?

I don’t actually think this is a conscious policy of aversion to democracy; more likely it’s a reflexive devotion to law and order. Riots are bad, even if they’re against an authoritarian regime, but military coups promise more order rather than less, and are therefore looked on a little more tolerantly.

This attitude has not been helped by the media’s practice of reporting the riots in isolation from any sort of political context, much less the background of the Tongans’ long struggle against a corrupt authoritarian monarchy.

On Friday the Tongan government “agreed to step up the pace of political reforms”, and according to the BBC “it is hoped [this] will soothe tensions”.

But if they know there will always be foreign troops there to back them up if things get out of hand, they might be less serious about reform than would otherwise be the case.

Peter Fray

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