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Brisbane man Sulieni Layt bestowed royal honor as Australia’s first talking chief on King of Tonga

Written by Javed Iqbal

A Brisbane man has become the first ever Australian to be installed in the Tongan royal palace in a role that will see him speak on behalf of the island nation’s king.

In an Australian-first ceremony, Brisbane broadcaster and dual citizen Sulieni Layt has been appointed to speak for King Tupou VI.

Out of respect, Tongan royalty and nobles do not speak directly to citizens and vice versa. Instead, they speak through appointed representatives.

While there are dozens of talking chiefs in the South Pacific island nation, Mr Layt is just the third non-Indigenous person to be given a role in the palace. The other two are from the USA.

Sulieni Layt with hands intertwined in a green park in traditional Tongan clothing.
Sir. Layt now holds the title of His Majesty’s Chief Attendant.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

Layt grew up in Queensland, where his family ran a flying school that won a contract to train pilots for Tonga’s national airline.

It was here that his passion for the island nation ignited and when he learned from the student pilots what would soon become his second language.

“They always spoke in Tongan and I always wanted to know what they were saying,” Mr Layt said.

“So I spent more time with them and I took more words and started going to the Tongan church with them.”

Tongan King Tupou VI wearing royal dress and his crown walks towards the camera during his coronation
Tongan King Tupou VI at his lavish coronation in 2015.(Wikimedia Commons)

The 41-year-old dual Tongan and Australian citizen went on to become a major broadcaster in the region for more than 30 years, founding the Pasifika TV and Radio service.

“It hasn’t fully dawned on me yet, the significance and magnitude of today’s ceremony,” he said.

“I have worked so many years with our Tongan people. They are my people and I have served His Majesty … for so many years and I want to continue to do so.”

The role will require him to travel to Tonga to meet the king. He will also be asked to travel with and speak for him when he visits Australia.

Historic ceremony with the participation of the Royal Princess

Her Royal Highness Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho with her eyes closed.
Her Royal Highness Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho attended the ceremony.(ABC News: Alfred Beales)

His appointment has added significance as the role is usually hereditary.

Sir. Layt will now enjoy the official title of His Majesty’s Chief Attendant and will henceforth be officially known as Lave ‘Iloa Ola.

The elaborate headline royal kava ceremony held at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens yesterday was the first ever held in Australia, and the first held outside Tonga for 30 years.

COVID-19 restrictions meant the kava ceremony could not be held in the palace grounds. At the Botanic Gardens, it attracted an audience from across Brisbane’s Pacific Island diaspora.

The Tongan community sits on grass in a park as part of a ceremony.
Pacific Islander families gathered to watch Mr Layt receive the royal honour.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

It involved the ceremonial preparation of kava – a traditional psychoactive drink made from the root of the yoqona plant.

The drink was then presented to the circle, which usually consists of nobles of Tongan clans.

The ceremony was attended by Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho in place of King Tupou VI.

A ‘rare and special’ deal

Sione Maile Molitika stands in a park.
Sione Maile Molitika is President of the Brisbane Tongan Community.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

President of Brisbane’s Tongan community, Sione Maile Molitika, said it was an honor to be involved in the ceremony in his hometown.

“For something to happen in Brisbane as part of our culture and our custom, it’s very important that they see part of who we are,” Mr Molitika said.

Pasemata Vi Taumisila standing in a field with a necklace of flowers.
Pasemata Vi Taumisila, daughter of the late noble Lord Ve’ehala, described the appointment as rare and special.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

Pasemata Vi Taumisila, daughter of the late noble Lord Ve’ehala and a member of the Tonga Traditional Committee – a branch of the royal palace – said the appointment was important.

“This particular occasion is very rare,” she said.

“They only install the title for special people.”

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Javed Iqbal

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