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Pacific News Minute: Beauty Pageant In Tonga Erupts Amid Accusations Of Bullying And Racism

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This month, celebrations are underway in Tonga to mark the birthday of the King, including the 40th annual Heilala Festival. But this year’s ceremony erupted as the outgoing queen criticized organizers for tormenting and bullying her.

Tonga’s biggest festival centers around a beauty pageant where, every year, the outgoing queen delivers a speech before handing her crown to her successor. This year, it did not work out that way.

Last year’s Miss Heilala, a law student named Kalo Funganitao, blasted organizers. RNZ Pacific quoted her as saying, “My mother and I were cheated, lied to, backstabbed, and generally messed around.”

As she delivered her speech, deputy prime minister Semisi Sika instructed the DJ to drown her out with loud music, and then cut off her microphone. Her mother, brother and other contestants joined her on stage as she continued, saying, “Enough is enough.”

Some in the crowd booed and shouted obscenities. That followed an ugly moment earlier, when someone shouted a racial slur directed at Leoshina Mercy Kariha – this year’s Miss Pacific Islands from Papua New Guinea. She later said the comment was painful, and added there should be no division among Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians.

The Tonga Tourist Association, which organizes the pageant, later stripped Funganitao of her title, erased all records of her reign, but did not address her accusations.

Betty Blake, coordinator of a Tongan women’s agency called Ma’a Fafine Moe Famili, said the incident reflects wider social issues of gender and power and told RNZ Pacific, “I think beauty pageants have had their day.”

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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