Herder's death deepens tensions in Inner Mongolia

Protests erupt after Mongolian herder run over by coal truck as he tried to stop mining convoy driving across prairie land

By Jonathan Watts in Xilinhot

Outside the closed gates of the Xilingol Mongolian high school, Chinese police watched warily as hundreds of students performed calisthenic exercises in a yard they had left the previous day to march through the streets. A short drive along the city's boulevards, another police unit was monitoring a middle school that was suddenly a source of concern. On the grasslands, patrol cars blocked access to a troubled community of herders and miners.

The security forces in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, are on a state of high alert after the biggest wave of demonstrations here in 20 years, sparked by a killing that symbolises the traumatic transition of Mongolia's nomadic grasslands into China's most important mining powerhouse.

On 11 May, a Han Chinese coal-truck driver ran over a 35-year-old Mongolian herder, known as Mergen, as he tried to prevent a convoy from driving across fenced prairies in Xiwu.

Allegations that the killing was deliberate have inflamed passions in the indigenous Mongolian community, which has been squeezed out of much of the land in the past half century.

Protests have erupted in at least three places. Online video clips (smhric.org) posted by overseas supporters show herders being arrested after a face-off with military police in Ujumchin last week. According to overseas groups, crowds also took to the streets in Huveet Shar on Thursday and Shuluun Huh on Friday with banners declaring, "defend the rights of Mongols" and "defend the homeland".

But the biggest protest was in Xilinhot, where 1,000 students in yellow and blue uniforms marched through the broad streets to the government headquarters on Wednesday.

"This was the largest protest since 1991," said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, which calls for more autonomy for the region and respect for traditional lifestyles. "There are increasing conflicts between herders and miners as the authorities open up more mines in the grasslands to meet their goal of turning Inner Mongolia into the nation's energy base."

In recent years, Inner Mongolia – a vast area of steppe grasslands and Gobi desert in northern China – has become the nation's leading producer of coal and rare earths.

Details of the killing that sparked the demonstrations are sketchy, second-hand and may have been exaggerated by internet rumours and a lack of trust in censored official news. Locals said that Mergen was leading about 40 herders who tried to block a convoy of coal trucks from the Tongcheng number two colliery. The drivers had reportedly run down fences and intruded on the nomads' land to avoid a bumpy road. After a protracted stand-off, the drivers are said to have crashed through the herders, killing Mergen.

One widely cited, but unverifiable claim, is that the driver boasted that he was sufficiently insured to cover the death of a "smelly Mongolian herder".

The author of this report – a Mongolian blogger named Zorigt – wrote: "In order to take a shortcut, these coal-hauling trucks have randomly run over local herders' grazing lands, not only killing numerous heads of livestock but also further damaging the already-weakened fragile grassland."

Students place more faith in such blogs than the government's version of events. "We are very angry. They killed him on purpose and dragged him along the ground for more than 100 metres. This has made us realise that Mongolian lives are worthless," said a 16-year-old female student from the Xilingol Mongolian high school. "If this issue is not resolved, there will be more protests."

Many of the students are from herding families who have been moved into cities as the wide-open pastures are fenced off. The government says such measures are necessary to promote development, prevent overgrazing and protect the fragile grasslands, much of which have turned to desert in recent decades.

Locals say herders' rights have been violated and the fencing and mining have created bigger environmental problems, including pollution, noise, traffic and dust storms that blow across much of north-east Asia.

The transformation is evident on the flight to Xilinhot. From the air, the grasslands are blotched with sandy areas near farm settlements and the dark smudges of open-cast pits run by the Datang and Shenhua mining companies. From the road, the clouds of dust from the mines and the trucks is visible miles away.

Mergen's death has turned him into a martyr for those who are unhappy with the loss and degradation of land. "He is a hero," said another female student in a yellow uniform. "I don't like to see barriers between Han and Mongols, but sometimes it is necessary to fight for your land."

Anger at the killing is focused on the truckers and the mining firms. It does not appear to have set the two main ethnic groups against one another. Many Han residents said they supported the Mongolian students, whose demonstration was peaceful. Shopkeepers said they provided free food and drink to the marchers. Taxi drivers expressed sympathy for their cause, and a restaurant owner spoke of the need for justice. But others were worried that the situation might deteriorate.

Mongolian activists have called for rolling protests through the region, cumulating in a rally in Genghis Khan Square in Hulunbuir on Monday.

The authorities have tried to placate the protesters by arresting four men for the killing and grasslands damage, and with a promise of a full investigation and compensation for the bereaved.

Mergen's brother said the family had been given money, but declined to say how much. "I don't want to answer any more questions about this," he said by phone.

Local radio stations run frequent bulletins about the police investigation, but there are few details and little transparency. An official at the Xilinhot propaganda department claimed to be unaware of any protests. The phone rang unanswered at other government offices.

Outsiders are unwelcome. The Guardian was blocked on the road into Xiwuzhumuxinqin, where Mergen was killed. "Special circumstances. You're not allowed in. It's not safe," said a police officer. At 4.30am the following morning, two plain-clothes police entered the Guardian's hotel room, woke this correspondent and tried to conduct an interrogation.

Chinese authorities are nervous about any sign of unrest in areas with large ethnic minorities, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, which also experience tensions between local herders and mining settlers. Inner Mongolia is usually considered less of a security threat because its overseas supporters are less vocal in calling for independence, it does not have a charismatic leader such as the Dalai Lama and its indigenous community has already been numerically overwhelmed by an influx of Han migrants who now comprise 79% of the population.

But there is a heavy security presence, and police are ruthless in quashing dissent. Last December, the region's most famous writer and activist, Hada, was due for release from prison after a 15-year term, but he has not been seen since and is presumed to be under house arrest.

The government's unease – and heavy-handed crackdown on protests and journalists – has also been sharpened by online calls this year for a "jasmine revolution" in China. Unrelated protests over land seizures, pollution and unemployment remain a major concern, most recently focused on home-made bomb explosions at three government offices in Fuzhou.
Mongolia: Inner and outer or southern and northern?

Inner Mongolia – a vast region of steppe grassland and Gobi desert – lies on the Chinese side of a historically shifting border between northern Mongolian nomads and southern Han agriculturalists. Once marked by the Great Wall, this boundary has been pushed hundreds of miles north. Independence activists refer to this area as Southern Mongolia and hope that it can be united with the neighbouring nation of Mongolia – once known as Outer Mongolia. But the demographic trends are in the opposite direction. Centuries of inward migration have given the region a population that is about 80% Han.


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