Protests rock Mongolian capital

Is forgotten Mongolia about to enter the global stage? Suddenly civil unrest breaks out in the capital, Ulan Bator, with a struggle over mineral resources in the background. Dare we hope that the anti-government protesters represent an indigenous ecological movement and not (or at least not yet) mere pawns of Washington, Moscow or Beijing? From AP, April 11:

ULAN BATOR – Thousands of protesters from rival civic groups faced off in Mongolia’s capital on Tuesday, as hundreds of police intervened to prevent minor scuffles from escalating.

A gathering of 1,500 pro-government protesters dispersed after briefly confronting about 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the city’s central square. Police intervened to prevent minor scuffles from escalating. There were no signs anyone was injured or that any of the protesters were detained by police.

Demonstrators have been camped in the central square for days to highlight their opposition to the government’s handling of the mining contract of Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. (TSX:IVN). They plan to take “extreme action” if their demands are not met by April 18, said S. Ganbaatar, an environmental activist with the Radical Reform Movement, one of several civic groups claiming to represent the poor and unemployed.

Those groups are demanding that the government resign if it cannot negotiate favourable terms from over the Vancouver, B.C. registered-company’s concession to mine a huge copper deposit in the southern Gobi region. In particular, the protesters want Mongolia to retain 51 per cent ownership of the mine.

Their rivals, members of nationalist groups and student organizations, many of them wearing blue scarves symbolizing Mongolian patriotism, say they favour political stability.

“Do not push the country into anarchy!” they shouted as they marched toward the central square. “Let’s sit down and talk,” they said.

Police were checking vehicles near the square to prevent protesters from bringing in more materials to build tents and traditional-style huts called ger, trying to limit the growth of a tent camp erected in the central square by the protesters.

The protests are a challenge to a parliamentary government installed less than three months ago and to President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, who has been criticized for not remedying corruption and poverty in the resource-rich but impoverished country.

Ivanhoe currently holds a long-term mining license for the site, known as Oyu Tolgoi, or Turquoise Hill, and is negotiating the terms for development as part of a “stability agreement” with the government.

There have been no accusations that Ivanhoe has acted improperly in the project. The company has defended itself, saying its investment helps boost the Mongolian economy.

See our last post on the Great Game for Central Asia.