The Steppes Are Ablaze: Corruption And Protest In Mongolia

What initially began last month as a backlash against an entrenched “coal mafia” has snowballed into a trenchant critique of Mongolia’s inability (and unwillingness) to provide a better future for its country’s youth. Corruption revelations involving the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi (E.T.T.) mining company have sparked enormous protests in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, with protestors telling current affairs magazine The Diplomat that suffocating air pollution, burdensome taxes, and humiliating unemployment are driving Mongolians to the brink of despair. While mining magnates steal millions without repercussions, highly skilled and multilingual graduates have been forced to juggle three dead-end jobs to survive.

Mongolia’s woes date back to the early nineties. 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow Branko Marcetic showed that American politicians and senators tied to think-tanks like the International Republican Institute spent years and millions of dollars propelling right-wing libertarians into power following communism’s collapse. Once the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (M.P.P.) had been beaten in the polls, the newly-instated Democratic Union Coalition (D.U.C.) tanked the economy, dropped price controls, slashed pensions, cut taxes, gutted social welfare, and halved the number of government ministries.

This neoliberal onslaught had predictable consequences. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that a third of the Mongolian population ranked below nutritional starvation levels under D.U.C. misrule. Unemployment skyrocketed to over 20% and incomes plummeted by 30% in 1997 alone. Mongolian society has yet to recover.

A scramble for Mongolia’s mineral resources erupted after the D.U.C. passed foreign investment legislation. According to investigator Keith Harmon Snow, companies like Centerra Gold, Xanadu, and Cold Gold Mongolia acquired extensive petroleum and mining concessions. Herdsmen and fragile ecosystems paid a terrible price for this corporate conquest. Local officials, eager to pocket money on the side, looked the other way as mining conglomerates rode roughshod over threadbare environmental protection laws.

The results speak for themselves. National Geographic said that unregulated hydraulic mining drained 300 lakes and cut off around 1,500 rivers and creeks. Freshwater contamination introduced liver diseases and cancers into dozens of local children. Herds grazing near toxic uranium mines have allegedly given birth to deformed offspring – a disturbing possibility, which the State Veterinary and Animal Breeding Agency has desperately tried to conceal.

In addition, mining communities deep in the Gobi Desert are hotbeds of crime, alcohol-fuelled debauchery, human trafficking, prostitution, S.T.I.s, and domestic abuse. A damning study published by the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining in 2014 found that sex-based violence is quite common in the Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi mines. Policemen spend entire days responding to phone calls about drunken spouses threatening to beat their partners. Makeshift hotels are no different to brothels; stories abound about cleaners finding women naked and weeping. Peer pressure ensures that many rapes go unreported.

Nomads expelled from ancestral lands have no choice but to eke out a dystopian existence in Ulaanbaatar’s overcrowded and sprawling slums. Harmon Snow noted that grave robbery is a popular activity: ancient tombs filled with hidden treasures, shiny trinkets, and beautiful artefacts are the urban poor’s gold mines. One woman, a college graduate, told the New York Times that she spends her days scavenging through piles of decaying rubbish in search of scrap metal to sell for food. Like many Mongolians, her ambitions have been killed dead by a chronic housing crisis. It’s no wonder that her countrymen have been taking to the streets with greater frequency and fury.

Moreover, most Mongolians want no part in the new cold war brewing between Washington and Beijing – despite the U.S. Army’s best efforts to mould the Mongolian armed forces into a pawn that could destabilize China’s northern borders. Journalist Robert Kaplan wrote that when he befriended Colonel Tom Wilhelm in 2004, the Colonel’s mission in Ulaanbatar was “to make the descendants of Genghis Khan the ‘peacekeeping Gurkhas’ of the American Empire.” Nearly two decades later, this objective has been realized. Mongolian troops regularly participate in training exercises alongside N.A.T.O. allies and mainly rely on U.S.-inspired tactical and field operation manuals. In 2011, Admiral Robert Willard assured the United States Congress that Ulaanbaatar was now a reliable partner and staunch supporter of American interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Should tensions between Washington and Beijing persist, the U.S. may use Mongolia as a launchpad to covertly inflame nationalist sentiments and to unleash turmoil within the province of Inner Mongolia in China, despite Mongolians’ overall weariness. David Sneath, a social anthropology professor at Cambridge who specializes in the political economy and post-socialist transformation of Mongolia, says that multiple organizations dedicated to the unification of “Southern Mongolia” with Mongolia proper are active in the United States. The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, for example, compares Beijing’s presence in Inner Mongolia to a military occupation. Activist groups like the Inner Mongolian People’s Party criticise Han Chinese colonialism and hold Beijing responsible for “the policy and practice of genocide” in the region, while American-owned outlets like Radio Free Asia already compare Beijing’s heavy-handed language restrictions in Inner Mongolia to an ongoing cultural genocide.

Already facing sporadically violent outbursts of Uyghur and Tibetan secessionism from within, not to mention the 400 U.S. Army land and sea bases surrounding Chinese territory from without, journalist John Pilger grimly predicts that the slightest hint of foreign meddling in Inner Mongolia will drive Mongolia itself to react with extreme prejudice.

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the late sixties and seventies undoubtedly caused immense harm to China’s Mongolian minority, and Beijing has yet to fully atone for this egregious record. However, the West’s cynical weaponization of legitimate Mongolian grievances will lead to further bloodshed in the long run. This incendiary rhetoric, reliant on insufficient evidence and severely lacking in nuanced analysis, will only exacerbate Beijing’s siege mentality, and like their parents and grandparents before them, ordinary Mongolians will end up first in the firing line. A protracted proxy war in Mongolia is a frightening possibility – and must be averted at all costs.

If Mongolia hopes to avoid Ukraine’s fate, Ulaanbaatar should seriously consider asserting its neutrality and sign a nonalignment treaty with the United States, Russia, and China. Ideally, President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh would pledge to completely demilitarize Mongolia in return for guarantees that American, Chinese, and Russian military personnel, advisors, and hardware will henceforth be prohibited from setting foot on Mongolian soil. Lawmakers could look to Austria’s State Treaty for inspiration.

Finally, what can be done to tackle endemic corruption and to revitalize Mongolia’s fledgling economic sovereignty? For starters, N.G.O.s must stop neutralizing indigenous protest movements. Sociologist Shelley Feldman explains that western N.G.O.s in the developing world tend to stymie effective forms of protest (such as strikes, boycotts, and rallies), instead speaking on behalf of vulnerable communities in a manner unlikely to ruffle gilded feathers in state institutions or multinational boardrooms. These N.G.O.s can also represent the agendas of wealthy donors far removed from living conditions, first-hand experience, and events on the ground. This is most definitely the case in Mongolia. Nomads banished into crumbling shantytowns, shorn of their traditional lifestyles and herds, are not being heard.

Mass demonstrations, encompassing the entirety of Mongolian society, can trigger systemic reform. The Mongolian people cannot afford to be cowed or divided: they face a litany of truly formidable opponents. Policemen and politicians are rumoured to let loose Neo-Nazi thugs to incite riots which then justify widespread crackdowns. Activists endure surveillance, harassment, torture, secret trials, and little to no legal representation. Mining companies employ paramilitary security guards to patrol their fiefdoms and to dissuade anyone from resisting ecocidal crimes. Only sustained civil disobedience on a gargantuan scale will bring about fundamental change to a fundamentally rotten status quo.

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