By B. Raman
China’s Inner Mongolia, where Mongolians are in a minority of only 20 per cent of the total population of 23 million, has been going through a Jasmine type Revolution with a difference since May 10. There have been widespread protests in different towns following the death of a herdsman by name Mergen who was allegedly killed by a Han Chinese truck driver when local herdsmen protested against mining operations in their area. Mergen was among a group of Mongolians who attempted to block a caravan of coal-hauling trucks in Xilingol.
The protests, which started spontaneously in a fit of rage over his death, have not so far seen demands for political reforms or independence. The protests till now have been against the modern way of life imposed on the Mongolians, a nomadic people who love their grasslands, by the Chinese craze for development.
The Mongolian youth, who came out of their universities and schools to protest against the death of Mergen, are now protesting against the widespread damage to their environment, grasslands and nomadic way of life due to the large scale exploitation of coal in the area through open-cast mining to feed the power stations in the rest of China.
There has been large scale destruction of their grasslands due to mining and infrastructure development. Their nomadic way of life is being destroyed by the modern way of life brought in by the Han Chinese who have come from outside the province and settled down there.
As it happened in Tibet, the Chinese calculation that the economic development of the province and prosperity would make the Mongolians reconcile themselves to the loss of their nomadic way of life have proved wrong.
Western sources see in the reports of the protests from Inner Mongolia the beginning of an anti-Han political revolt. It does not appear to be so—-at least not till now. The protests have been not against Han political and economic domination, but against Beijing’s attempts to impose on Inner Mongolia a development model not suited to them and which is proving detrimental to the Mongolian way of life.
Mongolian exiles living outside China—particularly in the West—are hoping that the protests will take a political turn and create one more pocket of alienation along China’s periphery— with the Mongolians joining the ranks of the Tibetans and the Uighurs in protesting against the Han colonisation of Inner Mongolia, which Mongolian exiles call Southern Mongolia to link it in the minds of the people with the independent Republic of Mongolia, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a large following.
It is too late in the day for the Mongolians to hope for separation from China. The Hans are in a crushing majority in Inner Mongolia. No separatist movement can hope to succeed. Will it be possible to protect and preserve the Mongolian way of life based on their in-born love of their grasslands? That is a question that needs to be addressed in dealing with the protest movement. Beijing does not seem to be doing so. It is viewing it purely as a law and order and an internal security problem.
However, the Xinhua news agency reported that Inner Mongolia’s Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua said on May 27 that “public anger has been immense” and that he would meet with students. He added:”We must correctly handle the relationship between the exploration of resources and the protection of the interests of people in Inner Mongolia.”
The unrest has involved thousands of protesters in different areas.Hundreds of students and herdsmen took to the streets of Chifeng on May 28, according to the US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. Police and para-military reinforcements have been rushed by the authorities to Hohhot, the provincial capital, and Universities have been sealed off in the cities of Tongliao and Ordos.
The Information Centre has reportedly called for a province-wide protest “to demand that the Government of China respect the human rights, life and dignity of the Mongols in China and to resolve the case of Mergen in a just and fair manner.”
Apprehending the use of the Internet by the protesting students and political exiles to spread disaffection against the authorities, the Chinese authorities have imposed controls on Internet cafes.