December 10 marked the sixth consecutive day of anti-corruption demonstrations at Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Among the many banners, slogans, and personal messages, protestors are demanding that Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai’s government unveil the hidden “coal mafia” to the public. The movement marks Mongolia’s second largest peaceful protests since 1991.
The demonstrations, which began on December 5, took place despite freezing temperatures reaching -30 degrees Celsius. The youth, not losing momentum, are pressuring the prime minister and the Ministry of Justice to comply with their demands. The sentiment and the ongoing protests are an illustration of the social dissatisfaction that fuels – and exhausts – Mongolian youth today. After years of injustice, inequality, and inefficiency, the Ministry of Justice now has to answer to the public.
Based on interviews with demonstrators at the Sukhbaatar Square, most were students free from political and business ties. In addition to the younger generation, however, representatives of various interest groups were also present. Some groups, who seemed to represent the faction of President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, were promoting a peaceful presence and retreat, seeking to prevent a possible escalation that could turn the demonstrations violent.
In another noteworthy development, the rally evolved into a mix of demographics. As the protest continued, more people showed up in support, bringing their own issues and complaints. Air pollution, high taxes, lack of job opportunities, missing coal, missing opportunities, corruption, and inequality are a few examples of the many concerns being voiced.
Artists and social influencers used social media tools to call for people to join the rally. Local small businesses and well-known activists brought warm food and teas to serve to the protesters. In connection with the latest anti-corruption demonstrations, Mongolians abroad began GoFundMe accounts in favor of the protesters. There is a sense of unity, support, and comfort.
Yet there is also a less seemly side. In the midst of the thousands of protesters who joined the rally in good faith, there are the corrupt ones – people holding cash, trying to bribe the protestors.
On December 10, during the “Discussion with Journalists” TV program, a female protester stated, “We sat in the front, on the cold cement. We had children coming from the back area and [they] informed us about people carrying cash to bribe the protestors.” Hearing this, Minister of Justice Nyambaatar Khishgee stated, “The department will look into this.”
In response to the public outcry, the Mongolian cabinet passed an emergency resolution to declassify nine projects implemented by Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi (ETT), the state-owned mining company at the center of the original allegations of coal industry corruption. Among the declassified information, specific topics include the Tavan Tolgoi-Gashuunsukhait and Tavan Tolgoi-Zuunbayan railroad project, its financial transactions, and certain contractual agreements and amendments made in 2019. Several former executives of ETT were arrested.
The declassified information involving the railroad is quickly turning into a political issue, as it involves former President Battulga Khaltmaa, who served as minister of roads, transportation, construction, and urban development during the time in question.
The government needs to abstain from politicizing the issue and tackle the details of who committed theft and how. This is no longer a government issue; it is a public issue.
Following the public’s demand to release the names of alleged coal thieves, Nyambaatar stated in a meeting with journalists: “I do not have the legal rights to release the medium and high-level ‘thieves’ by their names. My job and principle are to strengthen the legal, justice system of Mongolia, however you disrespect and come at me.”
On a number of social media platforms, people are sharing unverified stories of corruption in the coal and mining industries, many involving mining conglomerate families. Some posts even referred back to the 2016 Panama Papers, which involved former Prime Minister Batbold Sukhbaatar’s offshore accounts. Batbold still serves as a member of parliament.
From a broader perspective, the overall frustration and anger of the Mongolian people are understandable. Since the mining boom in 2011, inequality between the rich and the working class has skyrocketed, whether viewed in terms of the income gap or overall purchasing power.
In assessing Mongolia’s current economic and corruption climate, the dilemma here is that the mining conglomerates play a major role in decision-making and contribute tremendously to the national economy at large. The obvious unfortunate part of this dynamic is that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. This six-day demonstration is stems from this larger problem: The Mongolian people have had enough and they want equality. By taking to the streets they are saying, enough is enough; no more leeway and no more special treatment for the coal thieves.
In an interview with the Zuv.mn on Facebook Live, a young female protester spoke for many when she said the current government’s actions will not be enough. Catching one thief with another is not a real solution to Mongolia’s corruption. The protesters further asked why she and her fellow colleagues are struggling to live in today’s Mongolia despite her higher education and foreign language skills. Why, she asked, must she live a restless life, working three jobs, while others are stealing millions and continue to flourish in the current political and business system?
The people of Mongolia want the Oyun-Erdene administration to unveil the corrupt system that has protected these mining conglomerates, particularly state-owned enterprises such as Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi. The people of Mongolia do not want to hear political rhetoric or narratives; they want to see crystal-clear action from the Ministry of Justice and, more generally, from the Office of the Prime Minister.