From de Tocqueville to Tonga
Sophomore Seni Penitani is learning whether democracy can work in his home country of Tonga--by Jonathon M. Seidl
Sophomore Senituli Penitani grew up the youngest of four children on the Tongan island of Nomuka which boasts a population of 500 and measures five square miles. In general his childhood differed little from that of most King’s students. His thoughts on democracy, though, might. While he says he loves the education at King’s, with its emphasis on democracy, for now he prefers the system of government he grew up under—a monarchy.
“I am different from Tongans who studied in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and even here in the United States,” Seni, as he's called, said. “[They want to] come back to Tonga and rally people to change [our monarchy] to democracy, as if democracy is the savior of the world.”
Tonga is the last Polynesian kingdom in the South Pacific. And while it shares some of Britain’s royal characteristics, in practice the Tongan monarch has much more power. Tonga’s government is unicameral, dominated by nobles and monarch-appointed officials, and only nine of its legislators are elected democratically.
Still, while Seni prefers a monarchy today, that doesn’t mean he won’t welcome democracy in the future. He still thinks democracy can, and will, someday work in Tonga. For now, a monarchy is the “lesser of two evils.” And that’s because, he says, the Tongan people must change before they can handle the responsibility of democracy.
“Unless the Gospel transforms the Pacific Islands’ culture, democracy will still be an illusion to the Pacific,” Seni said. “Democracy is only a tool and could be used for both good and bad. It needs political, economic, and also cultural transformation to flourish. So I will labor first to change the ‘habits of the hearts’ in Tocqueville terms before changing the system (monarchy).”
That aligns with Seni’s dreams. First he hopes to return to the mission field and minister to South Pacific leaders. After that he wants to get into Tongan politics. His experiences and education have trained him to do both. He has a certificate in law from the University of the South Pacific, an associate’s degree in education from the Tonga Institute of Education, and a master’s degree in Christian ministry from Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary. Before coming to King’s he served as a missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ for 12 years and at King’s has worked with the Tongan Mission to the UN.
While working for the Tongan Mission during the first part of the fall semester, Seni met with the prime minister of Tonga and the deputy prime minister of Papua New Guinea. “I asked questions about politics and economics and utilized my King’s knowledge in an intelligent conversation,” Seni said of his interactions. “It’s a humbling experience and many times I prayed silently in the crowd asking God for wisdom on how to connect with the leaders of the Pacific.” After working for the Mission, the Tongan ambassador to the UN gave Seni an open invitation to work for her.
Seni found King’s in 2002 while searching the internet. After investigating further, he said, he prayed that “if ever I go to school again, it would be King’s.” Finally in 2007 his prayers were answered—he was accepted to King’s and moved to New York City. Now at King’s, he said, he’s gaining valuable knowledge and experience that will help him influence Tongan politics.
“The most exciting part of being at King’s," Seni said, “is when I sit in some of the lectures and I can say to myself, ‘Bingo! That is the answer for a Tongan political or economic problem.'”
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