By Alicia Campi
On Monday, September 16, a coordinated series of violent protests and bomb scares occurred in in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, seemingly carried out by “eco-terrorists” affiliated with the domestic anti-mining movement. The target of the attacks was the Government House in the city’s central square where the parliament, called to a special session by Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, had just opened the debate on easing the nation’s stringent and confusing foreign investment law last modified in 2012. Several protesters (reports differ on the number from three to eleven) were arrested. These reportedly included the well-known environmental activist Tsetsegee Munkhbayar as well as his deputy. Munkhbayar, a former herder, won the international environmental “Goldman Prize” in 2007 (Xinhua, September 16). They were apparently arrested along with other members of the Gal Undesten (Fire Nation) non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition of various nationalist groups, after one Gal Undesten member fired a shot while attempting to enter the Government House.
Mongolian news sources claimed a Kalashnikov assault rifle and another gun were confiscated. A local police captain was quoted as saying the gun discharged accidently with no injuries (The Mongol Messenger, September 20). Undetonated bombs were discovered nearby in the Central Tower, a luxury shopping and office high-rise, and at the Ministry of Environment after being reported by an anonymous caller later that day. Both sites were evacuated, and afterwards police displayed the confiscated caches of grenades, ammunition and rifles (infomongolia.com, September 17). The police and government officials also declared an emergency situation, blocking off the central square and other nearby government offices, which cause massive traffic delays. Police officials advised authorities and agency guards to be vigilant and careful (The Mongol Messenger, September 20). Meanwhile, the website of the United States Embassy in Ulaanbaatar immediately advised all US citizens to avoid travel on streets that run adjacent to the parliamentary square, “Although there is no known indication of plotting efforts to target Americans in this incident” (https://mongolia.usembassy.gov/sm_091613.html).
Although the government said the matter was being considered a criminal case, the protesters were turned over to the General Intelligence Agency (GIA) for questioning. Moreover, a joint task force has been established by the GIA, Criminal Police Department and the State Investigation Office. To date, no further word has been released to the public since the incident. Meanwhile, unsubstantiated rumors have been circulating in Ulaanbaatar. For instance this author, who was in Mongolia at the time, heard allegations that the protesters must have been financially supported by foreign entities—perhaps from Russia (the firearms were Russian-made) because Moscow sees no benefit in changing the mining climate to encourage more Western investment.
This incident arose just after a two-day conference (September 14–15) on possible scenarios for Mongolia’s future economic development, organized by the Davos, Switzerland-based World Economic Forum. At that conference and at other recent public events such as Mongolian Prime Minister Altankhuyag’s state visit to Japan (September 11–14), Mongolian leaders confidently promised that pro-mining regulations would soon be passed to ease foreign investors’ fears.
Protest demonstrators carrying firearms, hand grenades, and hand-made TNT bombs are a first for Mongolia, so the situation sent shockwaves throughout Mongolian society. It is apparent that the attack influenced the parliament to slow down its deliberative process on changing the legal environment. The day after the incident, a task force was established to study the views of the various ministries on the controversial issues surrounding the mining amendments and to allow for additional public debate (english.news.mn, September 17). Although this incident was well covered by the Mongolian media, particularly on television, and on Chinese and French press websites, this terrorist event strangely has not been mentioned much in Western news outlets. This is probably good for the Mongolian government, which is trying to promote the country as a place of stability for investors. But the turn toward violence bears careful scrutiny.