Dissent Over Land Reform May Portend Unrest in Mongolia
These questions have been brewing since November 25, when over 300 people attended a human rights forum sponsored by a coalition of activists. The forum produced petitions demanding that Parliament negotiate with a group called the Movement for the Just Privatization of Land and allow foreign non-governmental organizations to monitor these negotiations. The government has not formally responded to these demands. In the next few months, activists say, they will follow up on this petition with extensive organizing. According to the Human Rights Activists of Mongolia, dissidents will analyze the government's land laws in relation to national policy issues, conduct workshops on the law for poor rural farmers, and present conclusions from these efforts at another open forum. By May 1, when the privatization law is due to take effect, the coalition is promising "further action" to challenge it. This plan comes after police blocked demonstrators driving to the capital on December 10. Organized protest has an honored history in Mongolia. Popular protest helped undo Communism in this remote Asian country before the Soviet Union collapsed. While debate over land reform may not undermine the current government, it will probably bring some broad issues of democracy and policy to a head.
The current controversy began after parliamentarians concluded in early 2002 that the country's Law on Land, passed in 1994, no longer reflected the economic potential inherent in certain large plots. The government proposed a system under which holders of big plots could get huge paydays from selling their land, and rural farmers who owned only small plots would get much smaller payments or none at all. "It is to some degree unfair," says Morris Rossabi, a Mongolia scholar who teaches at Columbia University. Rossabi also notes that the government proposes to make payments for land to households, regardless of whether those households have 15 members or three. The policy, and the government's dismissive attitude toward protests about it, has also led to some speculation that future privatization of pastureland could show similar flaws.
Protests so far have generated some controversy on their own. A crew of tractor and truck drivers tried to enter Sukhbataar Square, Ulanbataar's central plaza, on December 10 in knowing violation of a law banning protests there. However, it is unclear how purely this episode reflects widespread rural outrage. According to the Liberty Center, an advocacy organization based in Ulanbataar, farmers attached anti-privatization slogans to their vehicles. But one expert, noting that a leader of the protests had served in Parliament and had aroused suspicion of participation in the murder of a political rival, questions how deeply anger over the land policy runs in Mongolia. "A lot of people think of him as a thug," says this person of the protest's leader.
Many opposition leaders are expressing concern about the government's tendency to ignore or silence dissent. Dissidents claimed that police surrounded the headquarters of the Democratic Party, an opposition group, during a protest on November 13. Calls for an investigation into this claim, which opposition figures wanted to begin by December 1, have not generated much concerted response. Reformist members of parliament won the right on December 12 to broadcast debate on the land-privatization law, but this may not quell unrest.
Rossabi suggests that concerns over the land privatization law may not necessarily dominate public debate in 2003. Worries about corruption and about the government's failure to tackle "tremendous poverty," he said, figure to also weigh heavily on the political scene. But human rights activists' organizing around land reform issues may touch off these broader debates. If they do, discontent with the state of Mongolian democracy could become harder for the government and the international community to ignore.