By Pearly Jacob
Many Mongolians were surprised when, one day in 2004, a corrugated-steel fence suddenly went up around Ulaanbaatar’s 35-acre Children’s Park. They were horrified six years later when only a tiny four-acre fraction of the park reopened to the public, and plans emerged for the construction of a luxury hotel and other private developments on the rest of the area.
Ulaanbaatar’s skyline is increasingly cluttered with cranes these days. Runaway economic growth, which stood at 17 percent last year according to the World Bank, has fueled a race to build commercial complexes and housing units. As a result, Mongolia’s capital is losing its green spaces and public recreation facilities, often to illegal land-grabs and murky deals involving elected officials and entrepreneurs, activists contend.
American journalist Michael Kohn was among the few to investigate openly rumors the communist-era Children’s Park was to be sold quietly to developers. He’d seen other public spaces steamrolled to make room for private homes and businesses in the 1990s, and he was worried. “That was a period of time when playgrounds and soccer fields were simply up for grabs, sold off to the highest bidder. A lack of transparency and law enforcement allowed this problem to fester, and there were no civic society institutions with the ability to fight it,” Kohn recalled about the privatization rush in the mid-1990s. He is a long-time resident of Ulaanbaatar who is married to a Mongolian.
In 2008, after hearing rumors for four years about the park, but no word from the city officials, Kohn started a Facebook group and blog to rally citizens to demand the park be preserved for public use. Activists helped uncover the fact that two of Mongolia’s biggest corporations, MCS Group and Bodi Group, and two smaller companies had acquired rights in the remaining park grounds for development projects, including a 33-story Shangri-La five-star hotel and shopping mall, an entertainment complex and a sports center. Both MCS and Bodi Group subsequently shared their development plans for the park on their websites.
This autumn, debates following the dismantling of Ulaanbaatar’s last statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin brought the park back into the public spotlight and prompted a group called the Mongolian Youth Federation (MYF) to take action. In a series of televised debates and news conferences in early November, the MYF president and supporters questioned government ministers and company officials on the legality of the permits to build commercial properties on public land.
Even more perplexing to the activists was how the original permits granted to a Japanese firm to build a “world-class” amusement facility at the park were quietly transferred to the private developers.
While MCS and Bodi Group maintained during the televised debates that they legally obtained their permits, MYF is calling for the release of all relevant documents signed by the companies and the government agencies that issued the permits. “They have all the documents to show it’s legal, but logically it’s completely illegal,” MYF President Munkhbat Ayush told EurasiaNet.org. Both MCS and Bodi Group ignored EurasiaNet.org’s repeated requests for comment.
Across the formerly communist world, many once-public properties have ended up in private hands. Ulaanbaatar is no exception: The Children’s Cinema now houses the Mongolian Stock Exchange; the Children’s Drama Theatre is now the headquarters for one of the country’s largest private banks.
Ayush says the opaque transactions that have characterized the early years of capitalist Mongolia, and which are not limited to urban areas, must stop.
Illegal construction has also marred the slopes of the Bogd Khan mountain range on the city’s southern limits. First protected in in the 18th century by the Buddhist leaders of the era, and awarded UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status in 1997, the Bogd Khan Uul Strictly Protected Area is one of the world’s oldest national parks. Despite legal safeguards, vast portions of the preserve now house some of the most upscale and expensive residential developments in Ulaanbaatar.
While many citizens are angry about the loss of public spaces, most keep quiet because of a sense of helplessness and cynicism over perceived corruption, says Tony Whitten, a biodiversity specialist formerly with the World Bank who has written extensively about illegal development in Mongolia’s protected areas. “I met all sorts of ordinary citizens and government staff who were desperately saddened by the abuses of Bogd Khan, but they felt there was no point in an outcry because they felt that decision makers would pay no attention to them,” Whitten told EurasiaNet.org in an email interview.
Raising public awareness and generating a popular outcry is precisely what MYF encourages in its efforts to save the Children’s Park, says Ayush, who hopes to extend the fight to reclaim or preserve other public spaces. But he admits it’s a difficult battle and negotiating with the corporations may be the only solution. “Even if we cannot save the whole park, I hope we can at least convince them [MCS and Bodi] to give back part of the land,” Ayush said.
Activists like Kohn hail recent efforts by MYF as a start to public participation in governance. “During the communist period the government did everything to develop the city and the country. Now the public is realizing that in a democracy the public has to take an active role in determining its future,” he said.
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.