Tonga country profile - Overview
- 3 October 2014
- From the section Asia
A group of more than 170 islands spread over an area of the South Pacific roughly the size of Japan, Tonga is the last Polynesian monarchy.
A deeply conservative, Christian country, Tonga voted in its first popularly elected parliament in 2010, ending 165 years of feudal rule.
A former British protectorate, Tonga became fully independent in 1970, though it was never formally colonised.
Tonga has no strategic or mineral resources and relies on agriculture, fishing and the money sent home by Tongans living abroad, many of them in New Zealand. Unemployment is high, particularly among the young.
Endowed with tropical beaches, rainforest and active volcanoes, it has a developing tourist industry - its main source of hard currency.
Almost all Tongans are Polynesian and its population has remained largely untouched by immigration. This has made it ideal for genetic research into the causes of common diseases.
Although Tonga has a highly traditional society, calls by young, Western-educated Tongans for a more democratic constitution had become increasingly hard to ignore.
In November 2009, a constitutional review panel recommended a ceremonial monarchy stripped of most of its real political power and a fully-elected parliament in place of the current, largely hereditary body. The king had previously indicated he was wholeheartedly committed to democratic reform.
A first tentative step towards reform was taken in early 2005 when elected MPs were appointed to the cabinet - previously handpicked from outside parliament - for the first time.
But demand for change became stronger. A public sector strike in 2005, marked by major street demonstrations, expanded into a campaign for political reform. In November 2006, riots erupted in the capital, in which eight people were killed.