Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have detained at least five ethnic Mongolian herders for "instigating illegal gatherings, protests and demonstrations via the Internet" since March 21, local residents and a U.S.-based rights group said.
Herders Burdee and Achilalt from Left Uzumchin Banner, a subdivision of Shilingol League in the west of the region, were taken away by police after they discussed recent protests and detentions of herders in Right Uzumchin Banner over mining activity on traditional grazing lands.
Herder Engkhbat from Right Uzumchin Banner was detained at the same time.
All three were placed under a 10-day administrative detention on Thursday for "instigating illegal gatherings via the Internet" after discussing the protests on the smartphone messaging app WeChat, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a statement on its website.
According to ethnic Mongolian scholar Huubis, five herders have been detained in recent days for showing online support for the Right Uzumchin Banner herders.
"After the [Uzumchin] herders were detained, there was a lot of discussion going back and forth about this on WeChat, about the issue of mining operations taking over grazing land and pollution," Huubis told RFA.
"The [recent detainees] were detained for having a discussion about this, all of them on incitement charges,” he said. "So far, five people have been detained that I know of.”
Meanwhile, herder and rights campaigner Odongerel was detained in Bayannur League's Urad Middle Banner, local residents said.
A resident of Urad Middle Banner said she had witnessed Odongerel's detention by local police.
"They detained one of our number here in Urad Middle Banner, this morning," said the woman who discussed the incident on condition of anonymity. "I don't know what she wrote on WeChat. Her name is Odongerel."
"They detained her alone today at about 9:10 a.m. for talking about the protests in [Right] Uzumchin Banner, for showing support for the herders' petition there," she said. "That's the reason she was detained."
She added: "It's more than 1,000 kilometers from here to Shilingol League [the location of Uzumchin], but we are in touch with them via WeChat."
Meanwhile, authorities in Shuluun-huh Banner arrested a herder surnamed Su on suspicion of "inciting and plotted illegal gatherings, protests and demonstrations via WeChat groups he is subscribed to," SMHRIC quoted the local police department as saying. Su is also being held under a 15-day administrative detention order.
Attempts to contact the authorities were unsuccessful.
Herders in the Right Uzumchin Banner have waged a petitioning and protest campaign against environmental pollution and the takeover of their traditional grazing lands in recent months.
Herders in Bayanhuaa township's Sain-Undur district staged a blockade to call for an immediate halt to production in the industrial zone.
SMHRIC said local water, soil and air is now heavily polluted with untreated toxic mining waste dumped on traditional grazing lands.
At least six herders were detained last week for blocking the entrance to the Bayanhuaa No.1 Coal Field, the No.2 Coal Crushing Station and a logistics center belonging to a copper-zinc mine for more than two days, "causing a substantial loss to the corporations concerned," SMHRIC quoted a police statement as saying.
Local officials promised to order a halt in production at the plants, but herders told RFA earlier this week that the shuttered plants had started up again in the middle of the night after the blockade ended.
Video footage obtained by RFA from local residents showed red mining trucks plying back and forth along a bank of loose earth, hot water running in channels through rural areas, and a drill truck pumping out waste water into a pool on the ground.
Further footage showed huge masses of heaped earth being moved around by mechanical excavators as herds of sheep grazed on grasslands near an apparently diminished river.
Still photos showed clouds of grey-brown smoke issuing from the foot of a huge mound of earth.
Huubis told RFA that the authorities fear a repeat of a 2011 incident in which Bayanhuaa herder Murgen was run over by a worker driving a coal truck while protesting the destruction of grazing lands by a mining company. The incident sparked weeks of protests across the region by herders and students.
"The authorities are afraid that these protests will spread and spark a protest movement like there was five years ago," Huubis said. "That's why they are keeping discussion under tight control."
A police statement warned local residents that they must use the Internet "in a responsible way," SMHRIC said.
"Acts of disturbing public order, obstructing social management, sabotaging public interest and violating the laws must be strictly investigated and harshly punished by the police authorities," the
police statement said.
There are signs that the unrest may continue, however.
Odongerel's mother Deemjidmaa said she would refuse to cooperate with the authorities over her daughter's detention, and that resistance in the region would continue, SMHRIC said.
"The more the coward police arrest us, the more we feel our strength," another herder named Oyuumchimeg said in a WeChat group monitored by SMHRIC. "Go ahead and arrest tens of us and hundreds of us. As long as we are not executed immediately, we will continue to fight for justice to the death."
Ethnic Mongolian rights activist Xinna said the latest detentions are an attempt to terrorize herding communities.
"They are clearly going after people posting things online, in an attempt to terrorize them," Xinna told RFA. "But it's self-defeating. I told the herders that Clause 35 of the constitution guarantees their right to freedom of expression."
"Even Beijing is threatened by pollution, and it goes against their anti-pollution drive to pollute the environment in Inner Mongolia," she said.
Police from Bayanhuaa township in Inner Mongolia's Right Uzumchin Banner (a county-level administrative district) detained Ganbaatar, Otgonbaatar, Munkhbaatar, Erdenbaatar, Tuvshin and Amarmend on Saturday.
While Erdenbaatar has since been released, the remaining five detained herders are being held under a 10-day administrative sentence for "disrupting public order," local police officers told their families.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lam Lok-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.