Chinese authorities in the Inner Mongolian region have begun a probe into complaints by local herding communities over the loss of their traditional grazing lands, after hundreds of ethnic Mongolians gathered outside government offices in protest on Monday.
Armed police prevented most of the protesters from entering the county-level Ar Horqin Banner government buildings over a long-running land dispute with a state-run forestry station, participants said.
"The riot police at the gates wouldn't let us in, so we picked 10 people [to represent us], and they spoke with the leaders for a while," Ar Horqin herder Bayaarshiguleng said.
"We held up a banner for a while outside the gates, but there was no slogan shouting or anything like that," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the complaints office said protests had taken place on Jan. 30 and Feb. 9 over the takeover of the community's traditional grazing lands and the deaths of a herder and livestock in 2003.
"They came on Jan. 30, and held a meeting with our Banner head and various departments," the official said. "They had three items they wanted to petition about."
"They came again on Feb. 9, and this time they had 10 items," the official said. "We are liaising with the various departments, and we have set up an investigative team to look into this matter."
Herders from Ar Horqin Banner told RFA that state-owned Hanwula Forestry Station began taking over their grazing lands as early as the 1980s, although they had not received compensation for the loss of access to the grasslands.
The complaints official said the office couldn't give a definitive response to the herders' petition without further liaison with other departments.
"We can't give concrete decisions to petitioners," the official said. "The responses we give come from the relevant departments, and all we do is mediate them."
No official paperwork
One herder who joined Monday's protest said people’s land had been taken over in 2003 and their livestock slaughtered by the forestry station with no official paperwork.
"Back when they took our land, the army came with guns and dragged people onto their vehicles in shackles if they refused to leave," the herder said.
"The sheep and cattle wouldn't go, so they shot them, and we were driven away," he said.
"One of our herders, a shepherd, was run over by one of their vehicles, and we were all very frightened."
Amid a growing wave of similar protests across the region, the herder said local people had demanded an explanation and compensation from the local government.
"About 600 people went to ask why they have taken over our grasslands...and to ask for the documents relating to this occupation of our land," the herder said.
He said the forestry station had taken some of their land in the 1980s, some in 1997, and the rest in 2003, and now occupies more than 1.4 million mu (930,000 hectares).
A second herder said the community had received no money in return for the loss of the land.
"They didn't give us a cent," he said. "They are raising sheep, cattle and pigs there, but our cattle aren't allowed to graze there, and if they do, they get impounded and we get fined."
He said local people lack enough grazing land to make a living from their existing livestock, and have been pursuing complaints over the land grab ever since.
He said the banner government had promised a response within a month.
Protests over lost grazing lands have spread across the region in recent weeks, prompting further demonstrations by ethnic Mongolians across the border in the independent country of Mongolia, a U.S.-based rights group said.
Eight Mongolian citizens, including prominent rights activist Munkhbayar Chuluundorj, were arrested by Mongolian police in the capital, Ulan Bator, after they protested outside the Chinese embassy there, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a statement on its website.
The protesters held up placards which read "Je Suis Sud Mongol" (I am Southern Mongolian), and demanded the release of herders detained by Chinese police in recent weeks.
The eight protesters were taken to a local police station and held for several hours.
"The police claimed it is illegal to protest near the embassies in Ulan Bator, but this seems to be valid only outside the Chinese embassy," Munkhbayar told SMHRIC.
"[Fellow activist] Sarnai was detained for six hours, and even given a summons to appear before the court for organizing an 'illegal protest' and 'smashing the police car door'" he said, adding that he had seen no damage to the police vehicle they rode in.
Munkhbayar has repeatedly hit out at the Mongolian government for supporting Beijing's stance and deporting Inner Mongolian activists who cross the border to evade persecution by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The protests among Mongolians in China have drawn widespread support among citizens of Mongolia via social media, who have joined in calls for herders' rights, SMHRIC said.
SMHRIC director Enhebatu Togochog told RFA that activists are planning simultaneous protests on behalf of the Inner Mongolians in New York, Washington, Stockholm, Germany and Tokyo on Saturday.
"We want to protest and appeal, and our slogan will be one of unity,"
he said. "Our first demand is the release of the detained herders, the return of our grazing lands and protection of our rights."
"[We also] demand an end to the despoilment of the grasslands and an end to the violation of herders' rights," he said.
Earlier this month, authorities in Durbed Banner (in Chinese, Siziwangqi) handed 15-day administrative sentences to four herders for their part in "illegal demonstrations."
Administrative sentences are a punishment handed by police to perceived troublemakers without the need for a trial.
Dozens of herders gathered in government offices in Durbed's Ulaanhua township in protest at the Jan. 31 detention of Odonhuaar, Davshilt, Naranhuaar and the Feb. 1 detention of Adiyaa, rights groups and relatives said.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, increasingly complain of widespread environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Clashes between Chinese companies and herding communities are common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.