THE cheers and thunderous applause was far from a welcome expected for "something of a leper", the label the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark gave interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama when she referred to how he would be treated if he attended the Pacific Forum.
Commodore Bainimarama said he was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic welcome, which was a huge contrast to the quiet reception received by his New Zealand counterpart Ms Clark and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer.
Hundreds of students, guests, and the general Tongan public greeted guests upon their arrival at the Mala'e Pangai Lahi grounds, where the opening ceremony of the 38th Pacific Islands Forum Meeting was held yesterday.
A foreign journalist described the crowd's enthusiastic reception as that accorded to a rock star.
But Commodore Bainimarama believed it was a sign of the Tongan people's understanding and acceptance of Fiji's situation.
"That was a message the people showed today (yesterday) at the opening ceremony," he said.
"They say it was like a 'rock star' appearance but really it was about the people of Tonga because they understood.
"They understand what is happening home and it came to the fore."
Commodore Bainimarama has said he would plead for more understanding at the forum and was open to talks with forum leaders, especially from Australia and New Zealand.
But Ms Clark yesterday reiterated there would be no meeting with Commodore Bainimarama even though the leaders of the 16-member forum countries would hold their retreat behind closed doors on Vava'u Island today.
"We have made it quite clear there won't be any bilateral meeting," Ms Clark told journalists at a press conference.
When pressed on whether she would even talk to Commodore Bainimarama at all, Ms Clark replied: "I will be attending this afternoon's meeting (yesterday) and I will be attending the retreat."
She said if a meeting was to be held on Fiji it should be by the Commonwealth.
"I think Don McKinnon should be meeting with Fiji because he is on the Commonwealth and Fiji is a suspended member," Ms Clark said.
"Mr McKinnon as the secretary general should be willing to review the process and whether Fiji is meeting the Commonwealth's requirements.
"It is very clear the Harare Declaration has a certain standard of conduct and Fiji has fallen below that."
Mr McKinnon and Commodore Bainimarama met yesterday.
Ms Clark said many donors like New Zealand and the Commonwealth were poised to support Fiji's process to normalcy and would like to see the interim government putting steps into place to get there.
Mr Downer also said he would not meet with Commodore Bainimarama.
However, he said he was interested to hear what he had to say at the meeting.
Mr Downer, who was already seated on the main stage, turned the opposite direction when Commodore Bainimarama arrived.
Commodore Bainimarama was sitted three seats away from Mr Downer.
The silent treatment lasted throughout the almost two-hour ceremony of traditional welcome, songs and dances by the people of Tonga in very wet conditions and witnessed by hundreds of delegates and invited guests.
Meanwhile, Commodore Bainimarama said he was excited to be representing Fiji.
He said the welcoming ceremony was impressive and displayed the discipline of the people of Tonga, especially the school girls,
The Queen Salote College girls choir totalling more than 300 voices entertained guests with a specially composed song for the event.
"I, like everyone else, was impressed with the way they love their king," said Commodore Bainimarama.
"They showed that respect on the grounds today."
He was referring to the crowd's response when King Siaosi Tupou V arrived for the official ceremony.
Permanent Secretary for the Prime Minister's Office Parmesh Chand said the rousing reception given Commodore Bainimarama showed how popular he was.
Mr Chand said given the traditional, cultural and traditional links between the two countries it was understandable for them to be welcomed with open arms.
"That is very important, the fact that they believe we can move the country forward despite what has been done," he said.
But the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre said "this is not a popularity game".
"The popularity has to be by your own people," it said.
"The Tongans have not been affected by what happened since December 5. Once he becomes popular here, only then will he become a respected leader."
On the meeting between Commodore Bainimarama and Mr McKinnon, Mr Chand said it lasted almost an hour and was fruitful.