Chinba From Erdenet: Mongolia’s Democracy Under Threat, How One Man Fights Back – OpEd


He is a tall, brave, blind, determined man. He was brutally beaten by an unknown gang and lost his vision entirely over two decades ago, but that never held him back.  The political movement that always inspired Chinba in the 1990s ended seventy years of communist rule in Mongolia. Erdenet and his city were at the forefront of our democratic revolution. Today, Chinba is so popular among democracy activists that he bears “Erdenet” as his last name.

Mongolia has a unique geography and geopolitics. Thousands of miles encircle this landlocked country, sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south. The end of the 20th century represented tumultuous times, and two events highlight this era.  In June 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre rocked China. In December 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from atop the Kremlin.  However, in December 1989, it was an underreported political event that shook my country and continues to resonate throughout the region:  The political ice that represented brutal Soviet hegemony was smashed when, on a brutally cold morning, our democracy movement brought down Mongolia’s communist-controlled government and ushered in a new political system founded on individual liberties, the rule-of-law, and democratic governance.  

Mongolia’s transition to democracy was truly remarkable and remains inspirational. Those young protesters, of which I was one of many, who carried the torch of freedom, did not shatter a single window or shed a single drop of blood—not a bullet was fired, or a fist thrown. Mongolia’s peaceful democratic revolution led to a simultaneous change in political, social, and economic life.

Mongolia’s transition and the building of democratic institutions certainly have not been smooth.   Since 1990, Mongolia has experienced nine multi-party parliamentary elections. However, the former-communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), now re-branded as the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), has prevailed in these elections seven times. Democracy parties have twice participated in power-sharing coalition governments over thirty-four years.

According to Chinba, “It’s not democracy but the communists to blame” when it came to the looting of many state-owned properties privatized during our transitional period.  “They adapted to change quickly and used opportunities in a free society to their advantage,” asserts Chinba.  Communists turned into monopolistic “crony capitalists” through the privatization of state and communal enterprises. They had the upper hand in using and abusing the tools of free market reform and democratic liberalization. The people, as did Chinba, pushed for transparency in this process, but the change was slow.    

Mongolia has a relatively small population. It reached three million just a decade ago. The country has a unicameral parliament consisting of 76 members. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the MPP took 70 of the 76 seats. Then, things turned significantly worse. Chinba, blind but determined, took his fight for accountability and transparency to the streets of Ulaanbaatar, my country’s capital.  He was arrested numerous times and threatened with jail for his peaceful protests, but he never gave up.

Many in the West have named Mongolia the “Democratic Anchor in the East.” Others call it “The Oasis of Democracy.” These monikers ring true in many respects: The country has achieved eye-opening results thanks to the hard fight of many thousands of people like Chinba. 

Just a decade ago, Mongolia was a triumphant leader of the Community of Democracies. Private enterprises contributed to more than 70 percent of Mongolia’s post-communist GDP. In 2011, Mongolia was the fastest-growing economy in the world and experienced the sharpest decline in corruption and the highest percentage of foreign direct investment per capita in just over 25 years under a new political system.  However, the dark cloud of state bureaucracy and one-sided governance looms over Mongolia again. 

Due to overwhelming resources, since 2016, the former Communist Party has dominated Mongolia’s parliament with a supermajority for two consecutive terms: that’s eight years without any meaningful checks and balances on political power.  

Recently, the ruling MPP issued two drastic and controversial changes to the country’s Constitution that will expand the number of parliamentary seats and implement a system where candidates are chosen from party lists.  This is a step back, not a step forward, and could permanently cement their political power for the foreseeable future. 

Chinba’s efforts to fight back against the country’s crony leadership, led by populist, Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, have so far been unsuccessful. 

Chinba has characterized Mongolia as being in “deep distress.”  He has demanded accountability from the government for corruption scandals and demonstrated his anger through a hunger strike at Central Square, which bears the name of the legendary Chinggis Khaan. He demands the prime minister’s resignation for widespread corruption and misuse of the public trust.

Mongolia remains a resilient democracy that pushes against the underbelly of Russia and rests on the backbone of China. Mongolia’s strategic importance as a democratic example is priceless but should not be taken for granted. The International Democracy Union (IDU) issued two special Resolutions in Washington, D.C., last December and in Wellington, New Zealand, this month.  The IDU regretted “the disturbing trends in the qualitative decline of Mongolia’s democratic institutions” and condemned “all attempts and attacks on effective and legitimate opposition in the country.”

Mongolia is gearing up for highly anticipated parliamentary elections on June 28th, but the mood in the country is downcast.  Mongols remain skeptical about the current socio-economic and political situation. According to recent government polls, individuals between the ages of 15 and 65 expressed that, if given the opportunity, they would choose to leave the country. Outside forces that seek to manipulate public sentiment, spread disinformation, and collapse democratic institutions are just as prevalent in Mongolia as in the U.S. and other democracies and are very hard at work.  

Chinba is not alone in his fight for freedom and democracy—This blind warrior is one of many millions of international activists also pressing for freedom in their homelands. Those on the front lines of liberty never sit back; they step forward.  Their fight has many colors. They bear Ukraine’s flag against Putin’s brutal aggression; they are Cambodians, Cubans, Iranians, Libyans, Myanmarese, Russians, and Venezuelans, to name a few.  Their languages are many, but their desire is singular:  Individual freedom and democracy.  We who are blessed with breathing the fresh air of liberty must realize they are not just fighting for their future but ours as well.

Chinba now reaches a broader audience than before. He is the anchor on YouTube of the popular weekly talk show “True Talk and Political Analysis.” He once said, “Our generation has no right to lose Mongolia’s freedom. If we lose democracy in Mongolia, humanity will lose a lot. We will protect our hard-earned freedom at any cost. Mongolia’s democracy is synonymous with Mongolia’s independence.”

As the elections approach, democracies must build closer ties to my fellow citizens, examine our electoral process and campaigning closely, and help nurture and preserve our people’s choices born from the demands for freedom a generation ago.

Elbegdorj Tsakhia

Elbegdorj Tsakhia is a former President and Prime Minister of Mongolia and is currently the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at Stanford University.

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