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Tonga's King George Tupou V passes away in Hong Kong

Tonga's King George Tupou V, who championed a more democratic system of government in the Pacific island nation, died Sunday at a Hong Kong hospital, the Tongan prime minister told Associated Press yesterday. He was 63.

Prime Minister Lord Siale'ataonga Tu'ivakano gave a brief address announcing that the king had died at 3 p.m. Sunday, Pesi Fonua, publisher of the Tongan news website Matangi Tonga, told The Associated Press. No cause of death was given.

The prime minister said the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, was at the king's side when he died at the Hong Kong hospital.

The prime minister declared that the royal family and entire nation was in mourning, ending his address with a Tongan expression meaning "The sun has set," according to Fonua.

The king had a liver transplant last year and suffered other health problems, according to Tongan media reports.

Tupou had reigned over the island nation of 106,000 since Sept. 2006, after the death of his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

The New Zealand Herald reports the news of the King's death spread quickly on Twitter early today, and many Tongans paid tribute.

Christinah Lataisia said: "Black and Purple begin to flood the fales in Tonga to mourn the passing away of our King."

Tessi Leila Tolutau said: "I am saddened by the news, our beloved King of Tonga has passed away ... our country has gone thru major losses in the past couple years."

Another resident said: "Sad day for our little Kingdom of Tonga. RIP King George Tupou V."

Tupou, who studied at King's College in Auckland, New Zealand, and in Britain, is credited with championing a more open system of government, advocating technological improvements and introducing a more open economy in the kingdom.

He will be remembered by many for his throwback fashion choices - which included wearing, at times, a top hat and even a monocle.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key released a statement Monday saying that his thoughts were with the people of Tonga.

"I would like to acknowledge the very valuable contribution the king has made in steering Tonga towards democracy and hope this work will continue," Key said. "He believed that the monarchy was an instrument of change and can truly be seen as the architect of evolving democracy in Tonga. This will be his enduring legacy."

Fonua said the king gave up most of his executive powers when he came to the throne, accepting the need for a more democratic system. Fonua said the king also championed technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, and made some enemies among conservative Tongans for his efforts to make the economy more market-driven.

Attempts to get in contact with the official representative of the Kingdom of Tonga in American Samoa were not successful as of press time.

Samoa News was able to speak to Salote Lutu Schuster, a resident of Fagatogo who is related to the royal family. (She explained that she was named Salote after her mother, whose name was given to her by the mother of King Taufaahau IV. The queen mother had given her name to Salote's mother before she was born.) 

“I got the news when I was in church... my family in Tonga called,” she said.  “Her Royal Highness, Princess Nanasi, who is the wife of the crown prince, informed me that the king had passed away in Hong Kong of kidney failure.

Schuster said Princess Nanasi’s husband, the crown prince, who is next in line for the throne, was with the king when he passed.

“They are making arrangements to bring the body home to Tonga sometime within the next two weeks, but plans are not finalized yet.” she added.

Salote plans to attend the funeral services with her husband, Su'a Carl Schuster, her brother Asila Kipeni Lutu, and her sister, Elisa Simaile Lutu. “As members of the royal family of Tonga from American Samoa, we wish to be there before the arrival of the king.” she said.

(Sources:  Associated Press. New Zealand Herald)