Mongolia: Involuntary return of dissident back to China, while activists critical of mining projects face harassment
Civic space in Mongolia remains rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ongoing concerns raised by civil society include reports of harassment, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, especially those working to defend economic, social and cultural rights. Further, provisions of the Criminal Code related to cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies (article 19.4) and sabotage (article 19.6) have been used to prosecute human rights defenders for legitimate activities. There are also concerns about press freedom.
In recent months, a dissident was unlawfully returned to China from Mongolia, while NGOs highlight harassment against activists in areas affected by mining operations. There are also ongoing concerns around press freedom. There have been protests by education professionals and anti-war groups.
Chinese authorities detain Southern Mongolian dissident in exile
In May 2023, Chinese police arrested prominent Southern Mongolian (a region in China called Inner Mongolia) author Lhamjab A. Borjigin (picture above) at his exile residence in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), on 3rd May 2023, four policemen with two police vehicles from China travelled to Mongolia and arrested Borjigin. Shortly after the arrest, Borjigin was forcibly deported back to China. Safeguard Defenders believes the Mongolian government must have provided assistance or at least permission for such an action to be taken.
A week before the arrest, Borjigin notified the SMHRIC that the Chinese authorities were harassing and threatening his family members back home in an effort to get him to return to China and were threatening to bring his daughter to Mongolia to force him to go back.
According to PEN America, Borjigin, aged 80, is the author of several books on Mongolian history. His 2006 book, China’s Cultural Revolution, examines the deaths of thousands of Southern Mongolians during the Cultural Revolution, presenting the oral histories of survivors. He was sentenced to one year in prison in 2019 and then put under “residential surveillance”, a form of house arrest, in late 2020.
On 6th March 2023, Borjigin managed to escape to independent Mongolia, where he announced he would publish a three-volume history of the suppression of Mongolian identity by the Chinese Communist Party in Southern Mongolia.
According to Safeguard Defenders, Borjigin’s case - a ‘transnational kidnapping’ - is likely the fifth known example of an involuntary return to China from Mongolia since 2009. Several previous deportations of ethnic Mongolian Chinese activists were conducted swiftly and without obvious due process: a deportation can be considered an involuntary return if proper procedures are not taken, in other words the host country uses the guise of a deportation to allow Beijing to conduct an involuntary return.
Safeguard Defenders said that “these deportations or involuntary returns have taken place as Beijing enjoys growing influence over Ulaanbaatar. In recent years, Mongolia has amassed debts to China, amounting to billions of dollars”.
Report highlights harassment against activists in areas affected by mining operations
The impacts of mining in #Mongolia go beyond the environment. Abnormalities in animals, contaminated air, water, meat, and milk, and human rights violations threaten local communities' health and livelihood. A new report and film by @forum_asia and @CHRD_Mongolia, coming soon. pic.twitter.com/JiqId6OACn— FORUM-ASIA (@forum_asia) January 26, 2023
FORUM-ASIA and the Centre for Human Rights and Development launched a report in April 2023 that was initiated at the request of local communities from the Ulaanbadrakh district of Dornogovi province and involves two more districts where communities have long struggled to protect their rights and environment affected by mining operations.
The report found that mining operations have not only jeopardised the community’s health and livelihoods, but also their right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. While mining companies sign engagement agreements with community members, the process is often not participatory, is shrouded in secrecy and lacks transparency and fairness.
The testimonies collected also reveal repeated attempts to silence critical voices and human rights defenders using tactics of threats, intimidation and violence. HRDs and NGO staff have faced a range of violations from both state actors and mining companies.
A woman HRD from Ulaanbadrakh soum (districts) said the police tried to take her away when she joined a protest to ask a mining company operating in the area to stop drilling. In the same soum, an HRD was the target of judicial harassment after being repeatedly sued by the company after he requested the halt of operations and the revocation of its mining licence.
The head of an NGO from Ulaanbadrakh soum was called for an interrogation by the police after a complaint was filed by a government official because they thought he was being funded by an international organisation. His accounts were also audited, and he suspected that his phone was tapped.
Ongoing concerns around press freedom
In May 2023, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its Global Press Freedom Index. Mongolia went up two spots from 90th place to 88th.
RSF said that the authorities broadly respect the principles of freedom and media pluralism. However, media ownership is very concentrated and lacks transparency. Whether owned privately or by the state, most Mongolian media openly show their affiliation to the government or political parties. Further, media outlets' ability to act as watchdogs is limited by pressure from politicians.
The group also stated that more than half of all defamation cases in Mongolia are brought against journalists and media outlets. Harsh financial penalties force them to censor themselves and curtail the development of independent and investigative media. In addition, many journalists experience some form of threats, pressure or insults related to their work, and several cases of harassment and violence have been reported.
A survey of journalists by the Globe International Center published in May, found that 69 percent had concerns about personal safety. Among the challenges they faced in carrying out their work were unreasonable refusal to provide information and summonses from courts, police or prosecutors. The main measure they called for was to ‘improve the legal environment’.
Protest by education professionals for higher pay
EI joins @mtu_fmesu in demanding better salaries and working conditions for Mongolian teachers. The Govt of #Mongolia must respect Collective agreement signed with the FMESU and teachers.#GoPublic #FundEducation pic.twitter.com/5mgM8GjUYn— Education International Asia-Pacific Region (@eduintAP) April 6, 2023
On 6th April 2023, thousands of education professionals peacefully protested in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, in response to the Federation of Mongolian Education and Science Unions' (FMESU) demands for higher pay for teachers and education support staff.
More than 5,000 FMESU members from preschool to secondary school, from scientific institutions to vocational education facilities and universities gathered at the Sukhbaatar Square.
FMESU requested that the government respond to the demands and announced that they were ready to go on strike until the demands are met.
Anti-war protesters lose appeal in Supreme Court
Л.Оюун-Эрдэнийн гомдол, шахалтаар Дабль стандарт, Дайны эсрэг хөдөлгөөн өрнүүлсэн #NoWar хөдөлгөөний залууст оноосон ялыг Улсын дээд шүүх хэлэлцэхээс татгалзлаа.— 🟡#NoWar (@NoWarMN) April 5, 2023
Ингэснээр Э.Одбаяр 1.2 жил, Ц.Чинбат, Б.Билгүүн, Л.Ганхөлөг, Б.Бямбагэрэл нар 1 жилийн ял эдлэх нь тодорхой боллоо.… pic.twitter.com/SmHFFnWdfY
There have been ongoing protests by anti-war groups in front of the Russian embassy in Ulaanbaatar. In April 2023, it was reported that the Supreme Court refused to repeal the sentence imposed on five anti-war activists.
The charges stem from holding a protest against Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine despite COVID-19 restrictions in 2022. Odbayar was sentenced to being confined to his residential district for 1.2 years. The other defendants - Ts. Chinbat, B. Bilgoon, L. Gankholog and B. Byambagerel - were prohibited from leaving their districts for one year.