Authorities in the Inner Mongolia region of China have closed the gates of major universities and colleges in the wake of protests sparked by the death of a herder at the hands of a mining truck driver.
Thousands of students at major schools, colleges, and universities in the regional capital Hohhot have been under heavy guard by riot police and paramilitary forces, according to a New York-based rights group.
"Students were closely monitored by their teachers and security personnel inside the campuses," the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an e-mailed statement.
Local sources confirmed the report.
"Starting from [Sunday], we haven't been able to leave campus," said a teacher at the Inner Mongolia Normal University in the capital.
"It's because of the herder in Xilin League who was run over and killed," the teacher said. "This is happening in a lot of schools."
Following instructions from "higher authorities," the Inner Mongolia Normal University posted an “important notice” on May 30, 2011, warning teachers and students of all high schools and colleges not to leave the school.
A copy of the notice was widely circulated on the Internet, where China's powerful filter system has already begun to block keyword searches for "Inner Mongolia" and related phrases.
A resident of Hohhot said security remained tight following region-wide protests sparked by the death of the herder, identified as Murgen, from the Abag region close to Xilinhot city.
"None of the students are being allowed out [of campus]," the resident said.
"There are police everywhere."
The Hohhot clampdown follows demonstrations on Sunday by hundreds of ethnic minority Mongolians who called for better rights protection for Mongolians and the release of an estimated 40 detainees.
SMHRIC said local residents were being bombarded with SMS messages from the authorities warning them not to go outside in case of violence on the streets.
It said Mongolian students confined to campus had remained defiant, however.
"Those students who were locked up in their classrooms and dormitories threw Chinese language textbooks out the windows to protest the authorities’ action."
SMHRIC said an estimated 40 people had been detained since major protests erupted in Xilin League last week, including two young Mongolians accused of sending photos of the demonstration to overseas rights groups, and two teachers accused of encouraging their students to take part.
It said the crackdown had been particularly harsh in Xilingol (in Chinese, Xilin) League (prefecture).
"Sources revealed paramilitary personnel have been ordered to carry out a door-to-door search for protest participants in Mongolian neighborhoods," the statement said.
"Local government officials were dispatched to Mongolian households to carry out so-called “ideological work” to persuade the Mongolians not to join any future protests," SMHRIC said.
It said police reinforcements had also been sent to Tongliao city, which has the biggest Mongolian population in the region.
"Police reinforcements were dispatched ... to Tongliao city to help avert any possible uprising there," the group said.
"Local government workers were dispatched to Mongolian communities to carry out propaganda work in an attempt to convince the Mongols about the favorable aspects of China’s ethnic policy."
Local residents said the ideological campaign was spread right across the Tongliao area.
China has imposed heavy security measures in major cities in the country's northern region of Inner Mongolia as ethnic Mongolians planned to step up protests over the destruction of their grasslands and erosion of culture.
On Sunday, hundreds of paramilitary policemen and police in riot gear sealed off streets and patrolled Xinhua Square in Hohhot. Parts of the region have been blocked off since Friday.
Authorities have also tightened security in the cities of Tongliao, Dongsheng, and Ulaanhad (in Chinese, Chifeng), where riot police were on red alert.
Calls have spread online for more protests on Monday to back demands for the protection of ethnic Mongolian rights.
Officials have responded by vowing to hold talks with protesters and respond to "reasonable" demands.
Official media have largely remained silent on the protest.
But the Global Times, a newspaper with strong links to the ruling Communist Party, published an editorial on Tuesday which hit out at overseas media and the SMHRIC for politicizing the protests.
"In some media reports, the incident has been depicted as a Mongolian protest against Han's dominance, similar to the Xinjiang riots in 2009 and Tibet unrest in 2008," the paper said.
"The Mongolian protests, over a herder being run over by a Han truck driver, are not politically-driven demonstrations," it said.
"Some of their requests are reasonable, and should be responded to by the local government," the paper said, adding that the anger over Murgen's death and the anxiety over exploitation of the grasslands was "understandable."
"We believe the majority of Chinese sympathize with their reasonable requests," the paper said, adding that the region had previously been viewed as a model for ethnic harmony.
"It is worth noticing the protests saw no violence between different ethnic groups," the paper said, while adding that the SHMRIC has "little connection to the local situation."
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's 23 million population, complain of destruction and unfair development policies in the region, which is China's largest producer of coal. The overwhelming majority of the residents are Han Chinese.
The SMHRIC says ethnic Mongolians have derived scant benefit from the industrialization of the region's grasslands.
"The original inhabitants of the grasslands ... have given up their lands and lifestyle and in exchange, for the most part, have been given a life of poverty," the group said in a recent statement.
Reported by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.