Tonga PM, 'Pacific elder statesman', dead at 78

Tonga's Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva (R) attends the opening of the 48th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Apia, Samoa on September 5, 2017. The 48th PIF leaders meeting takes place from September 4-8. KENI LESA / AFP

Wellington -- Tonga's prime minister Akilisi Pohiva died in an Auckland hospital after years of ill health, New Zealand officials said Thursday, hailing the 78-year-old as a democratic pioneer in the Pacific kingdom.

Pohiva was airlifted from Tonga on Wednesday to receive treatment for pneumonia, when his office issued a statement urging people to pray for him.

New Zealand cabinet minister Kelvin Davis said he died on Thursday morning.

"Pohiva was an elder statesman for the Pacific and a great friend for New Zealand," Davis told parliament in Wellington during a motion of condolence.

"He was an advocate, he was an activist, but more importantly he was standing for the rights and the democracy of a nation."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "terribly saddened" at Pohiva's death.

"He was a passionate advocate for his people, for his beloved Tonga and our Pacific family," Morrison tweeted.

Pohiva, a former history teacher, began his push for democracy in the mid-1970s, when Tonga was an absolute monarchy dominated by the royal family and nobles.

"For Tongan reform for democracy, no light burned brighter than this man," the New Zealand First party's Shane Jones told parliament.

"Not only did he face charges of treason... he was harassed for his beliefs. He rose to be prime minister and brought a level of equity to the political culture of Tonga." 

Pohiva was elected to parliament in 1987 and became prime minister in 2014 after reforms that gave ordinary voters more say in their government.

King Tupou VI effectively sacked him in 2017 by dissolving parliament and calling a snap election, but Pohiva was so popular that he defied expectations to win a second term.

Despite his physical frailty, he remained active in office and last month attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, where he lobbied for urgent action on climate change.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said Pohiva was so moved that he wept after by a plea from two Pacific youths for the regional leaders to safeguard their future from global warming.

"The leader of Tonga actually shed tears" at a presentation from "two young warriors of climate change," Sopoaga said.

Funeral arrangements for Pohiva, who is survived by a wife and seven children, have not been announced.

Tonga media reported that the kingdom's parliament had been suspended indefinitely after Pohiva's death.

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