An ethnic Mongolian herder jailed two years ago by Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia has been released from prison to be met by dozens of cheering supporters.
Nairalt Borjigin, who hails from Baayanunduur Som in Inner Mongolia's Ar-Horchin Banner [a county-like division], was jailed 25 months ago for his role in protests protecting the herders' traditional grazing lands from development.
In a speech widely circulated and translated into English by the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), Nairalt Borjigin said many herding communities now face annihilation amid severe drought in the region and dwindling access to grasslands.
"With a heartfelt understanding of the enormous hardships our fellow herders are facing today, I firmly believe that each and every one of you here today represents hundreds more courageous herders in your respective communities," he said.
His speech voiced widespread anger and frustration among herders who have continually reported being forced off their land by Chinese companies, local government policies to save the grasslands from overgrazing, and illegal land grabs by incoming Han Chinese migrants encouraged to move to the region from elsewhere in China.
"I know that you all are here today not to welcome me as an individual, but you are welcoming and paying respect to our collective idea of defending our legal rights and our determination to the struggle for our future and the well-being of our children and future generations,"
Forced out by poverty
He said herders are being forced by sheer poverty to leave their traditional, nomadic way of life forever.
"The conscience of our people never fails to judge what is right and what is wrong," Nairalt Borjigin said, adding that he has received thousands of calls, text messages, and social media tweets from supporters on his release.
"I did not spend 25 months in prison in vain ... as long as my people are awakened and stand up for our rights and our future."
"We must not lose our spirit," he said.
SMHRIC chairman Enghebat Togochog said herders are routinely jailed if they try to oppose the takeover of their lands.
"It is very common for herders to be subjected to persecution for protesting against Chinese government exploitation of the grasslands for mining, and against the grasslands protection policies," he told RFA.
"Local governments take a very hard line against any attempts at protest by the herders."
He said blamed the problem on a lack of rule of law in China.
"China isn't a country that does things by law," he said. "But the herders still want to use the framework of the law to protect their legitimate rights and interests."
Grazing is forbidden
Germany-based ethnic Mongolian dissident Xi Haiming said Mongolian herding communities are now being prevented from continuing their traditional way of life by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"We have always been a nomadic people who have herded cattle and sheep for several thousand years," Xi told RFA in a recent interview. "Now they won't let us do that any more. Grazing is forbidden."
"The Communist Party is now openly banning ethnic Mongolians from keeping their flocks, and in a lot of places the land has already been taken from them for mining operations," he said.
He said much of the former vast expanse of the Inner Mongolian grassland has been dug up for selenium mining.
"It has all been dug away now," Xi said. "Then the army took over the area and the ethnic Mongolians were squeezed out."
"Ethnic Mongolians have become refugees in their own land."
Reported by Gao Shan and Tian Yi for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.