Mass protests demand disclosure of ‘state coal thieves’

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In accordance with the Constitution, citizens of Mongolia have the freedom to freely express, speak and publish their beliefs and opinions and hold peaceful demonstrations while enjoying their fundamental rights. Exercising this right, for the second time this year, thousands of citizens are protesting against the government since December 4. The mass protest was sparked by apparent revelations about grand corruption involving coal deliveries by Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi JSC to China.

The amount of coal exported by Mongolia differs from the figures provided by the authorities of China. The Chinese side reportedly sent the names of Mongolian politicians involved in the theft to Prime Minister L.Oyun-Erdene. Therefore, the protesters are demanding that the government and the president reveal the names of all coal thieves.

However, protesters are not only insisting on the full disclosure of the coal theft but also expressing their displeasure with pressing social issues, namely inequality, tugrug depreciation and inflation. They stood up against the government and Parliament for failing to effectively deal with the rocketing inflation situation in Mongolia and making the people suffer.

During the demonstration, the youth expressed, “We are very upset about the price spike. If the 44 trillion MNT stolen through secret coal trades is confiscated and distributed to the 3.5 million citizens, our lives can be improved. We want to live happily in our country but we have nothing to hope for today. The rights and freedoms of citizens are being lost and people’s lives are deteriorating day by day.”

Netizen Batdulam, for instance, commented, “We have worked hard to live and paid high taxes but we never asked the authorities for warm and clean buses, accessible schools and kindergartens and living in a safe environment because for many years, we have been told that the economy of our country is difficult and we are a poor country. We have become accustomed to this society. But now, after hearing about the trillions and billions of dollars in coal deposits, bonds and development banks, I realized that our country is not poor. Our future and our lives have been stolen by state thieves.”

“I live in Yarmag. Due to the traffic, I arrived in the city center at 11:00 a.m. today even though I left home at 8:00 a.m. Our city is congested and full of smog. There are no jobs. Everything is difficult in Mongolia,” citizen B.Badam said. Protestor N.Ariunbold also underscored that the current salary people get is not enough to make ends meet in Mongolia and that he doesn’t want to leave such a society to his children. 

However, the citizens’ frustration turned into riots, with some storming the State Palace and blocking the main road outside the Central Post Office. As a result, four citizens and six employees were injured during the demonstration. Deputy Director-General of the General Police Department Brigadier-General R.Otgonjargal reported on Monday, “Demonstrations are being held without registration. We are working to ensure the safety of the marchers and all other citizens. Within the framework of its basic functions, the police will respect the rights of citizens expressing their opinions without violating their constitutional rights and maintain social order as risk-free as possible. Unfortunately, taking advantage of citizens who are expressing their opinions in a peaceful way, there are acts of drunkenness and changing the direction of the demonstration. For example, a group of people has committed criminal acts such as creating chaos, taking advantage of demonstrations, inciting riots and attempting to usurp state rights. In specific, the citizen who burned the Christmas tree was using drugs.”

At around 7:00 p.m. on December 5, Mayor of Ulaanbaatar D.Sumiyabazar issued an order to forcefully disperse crowds because the demonstration was not registered in accordance with the Law on Procedures for Demonstrations and Assembly. But police officers and special state security forces used loudspeakers to remove protestors from the premises and by 11:30 p.m., most protesters had peacefully left Sukhbaatar Square after picking up their garbage. Therefore, the mayor rescinded his decision five hours later.

Moreover, Parliament convened earlier that day to hear updates from the corresponding organizations and discuss a proposal put forward by the minister of justice and internal affairs in this regard. Parliament viewed it as unnecessary to declare a state of emergency and agreed to take appropriate action in the event that the situation worsened in the future based on the National Security Council’s recommendations.

PEOPLE BEING INVESTIGATED FOR COAL THEFT NAMED

Following the mass protest, Cabinet members reported on the people being investigated for coal theft and the issue surrounding the mismanagement of coal trades on December 5.

Chief Cabinet Secretary D.Amarbayasgalan stressed, “The Economic Crimes Department of the General Police Department is investigating a case involving about 385,000 tons of coal from Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi. There was a difference in the amount of coal recorded by Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi and its small companies. In 2017 and 2018, ministers and members of Parliament informed the public about this. Unfortunately, it is still unresolved. In connection with this case, some members of Parliament are being investigated. As of today, the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC) is also investigating about 15 officials after the government raised the issue related to the coal theft of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi and appointed a plenipotentiary representative. The court will decide whether they are guilty or not. People are free to express their opinions, speak out and march on the square. But the public is aware of the dangers of rioting. Therefore, I would like to say that any issue should be resolved through dialogue.”

Minister of Economy and Development Ch.Khurelbaatar highlighted that the government led by L.Oyun-Erdene is working on the principle that people do not rule but the law does. The government discussed the problem of coal theft three times. Some officials are involved in the coal theft. Therefore, a special regime was imposed on Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi. Many things are becoming clear during the special regime. In this regard, the authorized representative of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi has sent several letters to IAAC, he said.

Three types of cases related to coal are under the limelight. In particular, 10 criminal cases connected to coal contracts, transport and railways have been initiated. More specifically, former directors of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi D.Ariunbold and B.Gankhuyag are being investigated. Cases of former CEO of Tavan Tolgoi Railway LLC N.Udaanjargal and the relevant officials are under investigation, while Chief Customs Inspector Erdenebayar and employee of the General Directorate of Border Guard in Gashuunsukhait border checkpoint Dorjjugder are being investigated for allegedly smuggling coal across the border. The case of Chief of the General Authority for Border Protection Delgerdalai is also being considered, according to Minister Ch.Khurelbaatar.

The minister said, “IAAC also investigated the cases of Erdenet Mining Corporation’s 49 percent shares and Development Bank and transferred it to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office will review it and transfer it to the court soon. The task force established today will expedite the process of these cases to disclose them. We will work to improve competitiveness and sell the products of the mining industry at the highest price. In order to do so, the Mining Products Exchange Law was drafted and submitted to Parliament. By the first quarter of 2023, mineral products will be sold on the exchange.”

PUBLIC HEARING INITIATED

On Monday, Speaker of Parliament G.Zandanshatar issued an order to hold a public hearing on the issue of coal theft. Specifically, he instructed members to urgently organize the public hearing based on the findings of the Parliamentary Review Committee on Border Ports with representatives of international and civil society organizations, industry experts and researchers. The speaker emphasized, “By including the representatives of every province where mining takes place and by combatting coal theft with public participation, many problems will be revealed.”

“The right to establish a review committee for holding public hearings on issues of public concern, calling witnesses, revealing facts and controlling them is guaranteed by the Law on Parliamentary Oversight. Within the framework of this law, Parliament organized public hearings on the issue of Development Bank for the first time. Under our shared goal, Parliament and the government will ensure the right of all citizens to know, hold public hearings on the issue of coal theft, hold the corrupt accountable and establish justice and new standards through public participation,” Speaker G.Zandanshatar promised.

‘NO CITIZEN WAS ARRESTED’

On the first day of the protest, citizens started marching from Sukhbaatar Square and some of the protesters reached Ikh Tenger, the residence of the president of Mongolia, demanding that the authorities come out and take responsibility for this issue. However, Ikh Tenger was taken under police protection, preventing protesters from entering and infuriating the public even more.

Citizens resented the police for protecting the authorities when it is a force that should serve and protect the citizens. In fact, the relationship between the citizens and the police has not been very “amiable” lately. International experts have confirmed that there are many cases of arrests of citizens without judicial warrants during demonstrations.

However, the police claimed that no arrests were made during the last mass protest. Deputy Director-General of the General Police Department Brigadier-General R.Otgonjargal said, “Police officers worked overnight to ensure the safety of citizens. Last night, protestors did not argue or protest with police officers in any way. During the demonstration on December 4, there were no illegal acts and it was conducted in a unified manner. No citizen was arrested or detained. Let me officially say that even today, citizens have not been detained. In the future, if there is an act of inciting the public to riot, appropriate measures will be taken according to the law.”

In fact, it is commendable that the police only took warning measures despite the fact that people stormed the high-security premises, pulled down the fence and burned a Christmas tree.

After protestors urged the police to fight together with the citizens instead of protecting “thieves”, some officers joined and a video of a group of policemen going on strike at around 10:00 p.m. on Monday went viral on social media.

According to State Secretary of the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs P.Sainzorig, about 90 percent of the protestors were students and young people. It is great that opinionated young protestors stood firm for their position and hope for a brighter future no matter how cold the weather was. We hope that their real participation will bring about major political changes and reforms as the recent demonstrations organized by young Mongolians have shown that the voices and attitudes of the younger generation towards social issues can have the strongest impact. It is safe to say that they are thinking differently from the older generations and creating a new culture and society. Their fight continues to this day.

Misheel Lkhasuren

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