On May 11, a 35 year old ethnic Mongol herder called Mergen was crushed to death as he unsuccessfully tried to block a truck transporting coal. He was demonstrating against over-mining in his region, the Inner-Mongolia autonomous region in China. His death unleashed an unprecedented rebel movement in the isolated rural area, which was brutally repressed by authorities. A handful of amateur videos bear witness to the otherwise unreported violence.
All throughout the day of May 10, some 50 herders from Shilingol, a prefecture of Inner Mongolia, attempted to block a convoy of 100 trucks transporting coal. Just after midnight, several truck drivers decided to force their way through the shepherds’ roadblock. According the South Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre (SMHRIC), Mergen’s body was dragged for 150 metres by one of the trucks before several other vehicles rolled over it.
The trucks’ two drivers were arrested the following day and charged with murder. The shepherd’s family were given compensation of more than 560,000 yuan (60,000 euros) by the state, a huge sum which government critics believe was intended to silence the family.
Nevertheless, several days later, thousands of Mongolians from several nearby towns took up Mergen’s struggle. On May 27, hundreds of protestors, most of which were students, clashed with anti-riot police in the regional capital Hohhot. Human rights organizations reported that over 40 people were arrested, although the authorities claim that there were only four arrests.
China has accused unspecified “foreign forces” of trying to exploit the protests – allegations similar to those it made following anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet in 2008 and northwestern Xinjang the following year. However the official party line contrasted with the words of a local Communist party leader who on Sunday assured students that he “understood their position” and promised that the truck drivers would be “severely and swiftly punished”.
Ethnic Mongols represent 17% of the 23-million strong population of Inner Mongolia. For the past six decades, Beijing has encouraged mass migrations of ethnic Han (China’s main population group) to the region, and they now represent nearly 80% of the population. Many Mongolians say the migration has swamped their traditional nomadic culture and destroyed the natural environment of the grasslands.
Coal mining in Inner Mongolia began 5 years ago, and became particularly intense in Shilingol. The Chinese authorities have never been upfront about this whole business. In 2001, they initiated a huge ‘ecological migration’ in various zones inhabited by Mongol herders. The residents were asked to leave the region and go to the big towns so that the soil could recover. But that was merely a pretext, to clear the way for coal mines. Beijing decided that Inner Mongolia would be the ‘energy base of China’ and they allowed many mining companies to set up in the zones which were supposedly ‘protected’.
The people who protested at the beginning of May are either the Mongols who resisted the relocation or people who came back after a couple of years because they didn’t integrate into the big towns which are predominantly Han.
“This land has become a lawless zone in which the companies can do what they like, completely disregarding the indigenous people”
These days, the situation has gotten very bad. The ground has been over-exploited; the shepherds’ pastures have been devastated by trucks. The vegetation lacks water because the mines have depleted the underground reserves. As a result, desertification has accelerated. This land has become a lawless zone in which companies can do what they like, completely disregarding the indigenous people. Our understanding is that the company that employed the drivers who are responsible for Mergen’s death were not permitted to exploit the land they were mining.
The Chinese authorities’ policy is increasingly hostile towards the Mongols. Their aim now is to eliminate our culture. During these past few years, schools have been merged resulting in the end of lessons in the Mongol language. So now, schools teaching Mogol are further and further away from people’s homes. Some go to Chinese schools, others leave school altogether. It is about time that people realise what is going on. If we can’t learn our language, nor follow our way of life, we have arrived at a critical juncture and the Mongol people risk dying out.
“Police have made several arrests, but they seem to have refrained from using excessive force”
According to the latest news, Chinese authorities have blocked the use of the instant messaging service QQ in the region. It is the same situation for most social networks, forums and blogs. When you search ‘Inner Mongolia’ on the internet in China, nothing comes up. Email is very slow and attachments don’t come through at all. Censorship, by contrast, is very swift. People have told me by phone that they have taken many photos but they have no way of sending them.
What is going on at the moment in Inner Mongolia is unprecedented. Everyone is up in arms: the students, the intellectuals, the workers. This is a spontaneous movement with no central planning. That is why authorities are having such a hard time trying to contain it. Police have made several arrests, but they seem to have refrained from using excessive force. [Even so, one Chinese news source based abroad reported that ten people were killed in a demonstration on May 30 in Hohhot]. They are very vigilant because they do not know how the Mongol dissent will play out, unlike the Tibetans and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The protestors are very careful not to use inflammatory terms such as ‘self-determination’ or ‘human rights’. All they want is respect for their land and traditions.”