Thousands of ethnic Mongolians took to the streets of northern China on Wednesday, calling for better rights protections for nomadic herding families following the death of a herder named Murgen who was run over by a truck.
Nearly 2,000 students in the northwestern city of Xilinhot, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, gathered outside government buildings, calling on the authorities to respect the rights of Mongolian herding communities, overseas rights groups and exile sources said.
"The body of Murgen was cremated secretly, but this should have been carried out with due process," said Nahubisgalat, an ethnic Mongolian Chinese national currently living in Japan.
He said local anger had been sparked in particular by the detention of a number of herdsmen following protests at the weekend.
"These protests are the result of incorrect behavior on the part of the government, and they will continue," he added.
New Zealand-based rights activist Wang Ning said he had been following the situation closely since the death of Murgen (in Chinese, Morigen) following a standoff between herders and truck drivers two weeks ago.
"Last night the Xiwu banner [county] authorities said they would have to cremate the body by night, and they promised [Murgen's family] an apartment [in compensation]," Wang said.
"The authorities also promised they will hand down the death penalty to the driver who killed him ... That's when Murgen's wife and mother agreed to the funeral arrangements."
Herding communities in Murgen's home banner have been protesting since his death on May 10 after being run over by a coal-truck driver.
Officials have now promised to resolve Murgen's killing in a "just manner," according to the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC).
"In order to calm the enraged local Mongolian herders and students, high-ranking officials from the League [prefecture] Government visited the demonstration site to meet with protesters," the group said in a statement on its website.
The League Government would also address the case of detained herders from Abag banner [county] following clashes at the weekend, it said.
"In order to respect the Mongolian herders’ rights in the future, officials promised to have the government-run local media report on the cases," the statement said.
Students had agreed to return to class following the government's promises, and wait to see if they were fulfilled before planning their next move, it added.
Police detained a truck driver after his vehicle plowed into a group of protesters from Haoletu and Xiwu townships in Xilin Gol league near the border with Mongolia, local residents said in posts on the Internet last week.
After midnight on May 10, a group of truck drivers being blocked by protesters cried "Charge!" and drove directly into the group blocking their path, the posts said.
Photos of the scene showed trucks halted on the grassland in low light.
The herdsmen had blocked the road after complaining of loud and reckless driving through their pastures by trucks belonging to a local mining company, according to a report on the Xiwu township government official website.
It said police had detained two truck drivers, Li Lindong and Lu Xiangdong, following the death of Murgen, 35.
A resident of Haoletu Gol township said the mining trucks had caused a lot of tension among local herders, some of whom depend on grazing animals for their livelihood.
Local reports said Murgen had left behind an elderly mother, wife, and two children, the youngest of whom is three years old.
The Chinese government has begun relocating more than 250,000 nomads from Inner Mongolia's grasslands in recent years, saying the move is necessary to protect the fragile ecosystem of the region.
The policy has been seen among ethnic Mongolians as further marginalization for Mongolian nomadic herders, who are already vastly outnumbered by Chinese peasants.
Currently, ethnic Mongols represent a tiny 17 percent of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s 23 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Han Chinese.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.