Authorities in China have clamped down on protests in Inner Mongolia by nomadic herders against development of the region's grasslands, arresting dozens and sealing off roads and schools in major towns and cities on Friday, according to current and former residents of the area.
Dolgion Hatgin, a former resident of Shuluun Huh (in Chinese, Zhenglan) banner (county) where the protests took place, but who now lives in Sweden, said he heard about the arrests from his friends and family.
"More than 30 people were arrested Friday in clashes. The people participating in today’s protests are from southern Xilingol league [prefecture]. More than 300 people took part. Also three of my best friends were among those arrested," he said.
"Everyone is now just waiting at home and trying to find out what will happen."
The clampdown follows several days of protests by minority ethnic Mongolians in and around Xilinhot city, sparked by the death of a herder, Murgen, following clashes between local herders and mining company truck drivers.
Hatgin said that the local government had announced on television that beginning Friday, no more demonstrations would be tolerated and those who defied the order would be arrested.
“Officials have also closed all middle and primary schools in the area. The police and military are controlling Xilingol league and the local television station is asking people to stay at home."
A Chinese resident of the area, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed the crackdown and said that members of the Han Chinese majority in the banner had been warned to take precautions.
“Work leaders are telling Chinese employees not to go out because the Mongolians may kill us. They are saying to take care of ourselves and our families and that we shouldn’t go and see the protests.”
The U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an e-mailed news release on Friday that all Mongolian schools in Shuluun Huh banner were under heavy guard by riot police and security personnel.
"Mongolian students who attempted to join the herders' protest have been stopped by the school authorities and riot police," it said.
SMHRIC said more herders were on their way to the main town of Shuluun Huh banner for possible protests.
An official who answered the phone at the Shuluun Huh banner government offices on Friday declined to confirm the report.
A taxi driver from Right Ujumchin (in Chinese, Xiwu) banner, near the northwestern city of Xilinhot, said streets in the banner's main town had been sealed off by police in recent days.
"I didn't see anyone [protesting] today," he said. "There have obviously been repercussions, because they have sealed off the roads and closed some shops."
"They're not letting anyone through."
The tight security was described by some residents to Reuters news agency as "martial law," a term which in Chinese can simply refer to sealed-off streets and a strong security presence.
Concern for grasslands
Local residents and overseas rights groups said the protests appeared to be aimed at protecting the ecology of grasslands and the livelihoods of herding communities.
"There were some students demonstrating here yesterday, mainly against mining operations in the grasslands," the man said. "The mines have stopped production because of the Murgen incident."
But he said those demonstrating were not mostly herders now.
"The herders live in far-off rural areas," he said. "Most of those demonstrating are just ordinary residents."
Almas Simud, a Mongolian resident of Tongliao, a city near where the protests took place, said in a Skype interview on Thursday that his son had been approached by police following the unrest.
“The Chinese security police just came and asked my son questions because he sent pictures to [overseas activists] about the protests.”
Subsequent attempts to reach Simud on Friday failed and residents of Xilingol league wrote via e-mail that they feared he may have been arrested.
Residents from Xilingol also wrote that a teacher from the area named Bilik who helped to organize protests had not been seen or heard from since Wednesday.
Reports posted on Internet chat rooms accused Chinese riot police of intentionally driving into protesters, injuring four Mongolian women.
There was no way to verify the content of these reports, however.
SMHRIC said 10 Mongolian students were injured in clashes with the riot police during protests.
It said the security clampdown has affected online communications, too.
"In an attempt to control the Southern Mongolians from communicating through the social networking tools, the Chinese authorities are intensifying their crackdown on QQ messaging, Internet chatting, and e-mail communications," SMHRIC said.
"Police raided the residences of several Mongolian Internet chat room administrators in Hohhot, capital city the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and searched for evidence of sending out materials related to the protests," it added.
A video clip of the protests posted on the video-sharing site YouTube showed thousands of people chanting the slogan, "Defend our land, defend our rights!"
The clip was soon removed by China's Internet censors inside China, however.
Nahubisgalat, an ethnic Mongolian Chinese national currently living in Japan, said the police had used excessive force against the unarmed protesters.
"The methods used by the Right Ujumchin banner government were appalling," he said. "They sent troops and police to put down the protests."
Murgen's death on May 11 sparked protests by more than 2,000 students and herders in Xilinhot city on Wednesday.
They dispersed after officials promised to bring to justice the driver involved in the incident. But the protests resumed the following day over larger issues such as protection of grasslands.
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.
Wang Ning, a former resident of Xilinhot now living in Australia, said universities in the regional capital Hohhot had introduced extra exams so as to stop students from joining demonstrations.
"They got this from the SMS messages being sent among Mongolian students in Hohhot, saying that they would have a demonstration on May 30," Wang said.
"That has probably changed now, because the authorities have already put [security] measures in place."
Khereid Khuvisgalt, secretary of the Inner Mongolia People’s Party based in Japan, also confirmed the government decision to increase schooling for students.
“In Hohhot all students are required to attend universities and middle schools on Saturday and Sunday. They no longer have the weekend off," he said, adding that authorities had been stepping up the crackdown because of the proximity of the protests to the Chinese capital of Beijing.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA's Uyghur service, Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service, and Dai Weisen for the Cantonese service. Translated from Uyghur by Mihray Abdilim. Translated from Chinese and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.