Ethnic Mongols protesting a land grab by a state-owned forestry company in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region have taken their campaign to the local government after violent clashes with the police, a U.S.-based rights group and local sources said Wednesday.
About 40 farmers and villagers from Tulee Gachaa in the Naiman banner (county) in eastern Inner Mongolia demonstrated in front of government offices in the banner's capital Daachintal (in Chinese, Daxintale) on Tuesday, the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center said in a statement.
The protesters demanded the Naiman authorities release the 22 protesters detained in Monday’s violent protest in the village and return 60,000 mu (10,000 acres) of farmland they say has been expropriated by the government-backed company and left lying idle for years.
The protesters chanted slogans and displayed a sign that said, in Mongolian and Chinese, “The detention is illegal; Release the detainees; Return our land,” SMHRIC said.
Li Yushan, deputy secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Naiman, confirmed the incident, saying the local government had offered to negotiate with the protesters.
“If the Mongol farmers would discuss this with us, maybe we could resolve the problem, but they have not agreed to this so far,” he told RFA’s Uyghur service Wednesday.
But SMHRIC claimed local government officials had met with five of the protester’s representatives on Wednesday evening, proposing to release the detainees if the protesters went home silently and signed promises to stop opposing the land expropriation.
The protesters refused, sending a message to SMHRIC that said, “We are determined not to halt our protest until the government releases all detainees, compensates our losses, punishes those who beat the protesters, and returns our land to us.”
The farmers say the plot of farmland was taken over by the Chinese-run Xinglonggao Forestry company several years ago, but now lies neglected.
On Monday, “several hundred” Tulee Gachaa residents clashed in their home village with over 80 police from the Naiman banner’s public security bureau, SMHRIC said.
A source who lives in Tongliao city, the capital of the prefecture that includes Naiman banner, said that most of those detained had returned home.
“Now two of the 22 detained are still in police custody, but 20 have returned home,” he told RFA’s Uyghur service.
He said the Mongols in the area were fed up with corruption by local officials and resented Han Chinese migration to the region.
“When Chinese people come to the Mongol area, after one or two years they become very rich, but local Mongols are still very poor. This is a big problem here,” he said.
Mongols are a recognized ethnic minority in China and number around six million, according to government statistics.
Death of a herdsman
In May 2011, the death of a herdsman named Murgen in Tongliao’s neighboring Xilin Gol league (prefecture) triggered large-scale protests by herders and students across Inner Mongolia, putting a spotlight on ethnic tensions in the region.
Murgen had been killed in a standoff with mining company employees. Local herders had complained that the company’s truck drivers were destroying their pastureland with reckless driving.
Protests came to a head in Tongliao city last July, when nearly 400 ethnic Mongol former students demonstrated after authorities reneged on an agreement to provide them with jobs.
In the wake of protests in Tongliao, Hohhot, and Chifeng, Chinese authorities poured large numbers of troops into the region and enforced a security lock-in at schools, universities, and government institutions.
Khereid Khuvisgalt, a Mongol activist originally from Tongliao and now based in Japan, said this week’s protest was a continuation of the same protests sparked by Murgen’s death.
“The issue this year is the same as with Murgen last year,” he said. “Now the Mongols are tired and disappointed in the government because the government doesn’t care about the issues they have raised since last year,” he said.
Five of the protesters from Naiman have made plans to go to petition in Beijing, he said.
He added that in March, several people who had planned to go to the Chinese capital to petition the authorities were detained in Tongliao.
Reported and translated by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.