Human rights activists and non-governmental organization representatives in Mongolia are worried that the government, which is dominated by former Communists, strives to curtail individual liberties. They cite authorities' harsh reaction to a protest in the capital Ulanbaatar against land privatization legislation.
Up to 200 police officers were deployed in the early hours of November 13 to break up the privatization protest outside Parliament, located at Sukhbaatar Square in the center of the capital. Dozens of protesters some of them farmers, who had driven to the capital on their tractors were taken into custody. Police also cordoned off the nearby offices of the opposition Democratic Party, which provided logistical support to the demonstrators. A group called the Fair Land Privatization Movement organized the protest. All those either detained or contained against their will were released after up to eight hours in custody.
Political observers say the government's decision to forcibly terminate the protest is an unprecedented development in Mongolia's post-Communist era. Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a volunteer for the Liberty Center, an Ulanbaatar NGO, noted that over the past dozen years, the country's leaders had never before resorted to force to silence demonstrators, even during the pro-democracy protests that led to the end of one-party rule in 1990.
The government is dominated by the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), which captured 72 of the 76 seats at stake during the last parliamentary election in 2000. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some rights advocates believe the police clampdown November 13 is an indicator that the government is backing away from democratization.
"It seems that we are living in the old times," said Solongo Sharkhuu, the human rights coordinator at the Mongolian Foundation for Open Society. "The perception is that we are moving backward."
Sharkhuu added that rights advocates and NGO leaders are planning to hold a "civil society" forum later in November. The meeting will aim to develop a coordinated strategic program in support of democratization efforts.
"It is important now for NGOs to unify and act as one," Sharkhuu said. The Mongolian Society for Open Society and EurasiaNet are both affiliated with the New York-based Open Society Institute.
Currently, democratization advocates are working to disseminate information about the government's crackdown. Tsedevdamba pointed out that large portions of Mongolia are served only by state-controlled television, which has provided scant coverage of the privatization protest and the police action. Most alternative mass media, including Channel 25 and Eagle TV, can be seen only in Ulanbaatar. Tsedevdamba said the lack of access to information was causing a "deep gap" in understanding of events among Mongolia's 2.4 million citizens.
Protest organizers contend that parliament this summer adopted the Law on Land Privatization without proper public discussion. They add that the land distribution formula envisioned in the legislation discriminates against poor rural farmers.
"If implemented, the law shall lock farm workers into long-lasting poverty by giving the bulk of fertile land to monopolistic companies," said a written statement distributed by the group Human Rights Advocates of Mongolia.
"Poor farm workers who had not benefited from previous rounds of privatization the way herders benefited from livestock privatization and apartment dwellers from apartment privatization
Susan Lazorchick is Program Officer for Eurasia and Middle Eastern Initiatives at the Open Society Institutes Central Eurasia Project.