The Chinese authorities must avoid a violent crackdown on demonstrations in the country’s Inner Mongolia region, as martial law was declared in some areas to quell a fifth day of protests, Amnesty international said today.
“The Chinese authorities must respect freedom of expression and assembly for protesters. Given the heavy handed repression of similar protests in other regions, like Xinjiang and Tibet, there are real grounds for concern about the situation in Inner Mongolia,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific deputy director.
In a rare show of defiance, hundreds of ethnic Mongolians from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR) marched to a local government building in Shuluun Huh Banner county on Friday, calling on Chinese authorities to respect the rights and traditional way of life of Mongolian herders, including access to grazing land.
Reports indicate that the daily protests since 23 May across the wider area have been largely peaceful. However, at least 18 people were reported to have been injured, some seriously, in confrontations with the police in Right Ujumchin Banner on 23 and 26 May.
"At the heart of these demonstrations are long-standing calls to respect human rights and protect Mongolian culture. Over the years the Chinese authorities have regularly detained activists and writers making such calls, sentencing some to lengthy imprisonment. The protests are a wake-up call for the authorities. As in other minority areas, authorities must start heeding the message rather than attacking the messengers”, said Catherine Baber.
“The Chinese authorities must ensure ethnic Mongolians’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and they must avoid using unnecessary or excessive force in policing these protests," she added.
The week of protests, which on Wednesday saw around 2,000 Mongolian students take to the streets in the IMAR city of Shiliinhot, was initially prompted by the death of an ethnic Mongolian shepherd, Mergen (who like many Mongolians uses one name), who was run over by a coal truck driven by an ethnic Han, China’s dominant ethnic group. The Chinese authorities have detained and charged the driver and co-driver of the truck.
Among China's six million ethnic Mongolians there are many who fear that their traditional lifestyle is being threatened by the growth of mining projects in the mineral-rich region.
Calls for further protests among ethnic Mongolians have been posted online. However, local media reports suggest that the Chinese authorities have stepped up online censorship in the wake of demonstrations, with reports of increasingly limited access to social media platforms in the area.
Similar calls to respect the rights and culture of ethnic Mongolians have been met with a heavy-handed response by the Chinese authorities in the past. Hada, a Mongolian human rights activist and co-founder of the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, was given a 15-year prison sentence in 1995 on charges of “espionage” and “separatism”.
Hada was expected to be released in December 2010 but remains in secret detention. His wife and son had been under close surveillance, suffering frequent harassment by the authorities throughout his sentence. They were both detained on the eve of his release date and have since been charged with “illegal business” and “possession of drugs” respectively.