ULAANBAATAR – Protesters angered by allegations of corruption linked to Mongolia's coal trade with China tried to force their way into the State Palace in the capital, demanding dismissals of officials involved in the scandal.
The U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar issued an alert Monday saying that several hundred protesters had gathered in the freezing cold in the city’s Sukhbaatar Square during the weekend and marched to the presidential residence.
The demonstrators chanted and sang, stamping their feet to stay warm. They were demanding that the government hold officials accountable for the alleged theft of 385,000 tons of coal from stockpiles on Mongolia’s border with China.
Most of the demonstrators were college students and others in their 20s and 30s, a few bundled up in traditional thick robes, and some holding up placards.
“If you don’t love your country, why be a citizen?” said one. A black board held up by another said, “We want to live with dignity in our country.”
“If the citizens rise up, the feast is over!" said another.
The allegations center on coal from the Tavan Tolgoi region in the south Gobi desert that is being mined by state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi and two other companies. Local media reports said ETT, which is listed on Mongolia's stock exchange, has been placed under state supervision as the government's Independent Authority Against Corruption investigates.
Foreign sales of Mongolia’s vast mineral wealth, coal and other resources are a perennial source of conflict for the country, where nearly one in three people live in poverty. Adding to the frustrations, the pandemic has left many Mongolians struggling to make ends meet, with inflation topping 15%.
Mongolia transitioned to democracy in the early 1990s after six decades of communism. Peaceful protests are not uncommon in Ulanbaatar, where about half of Mongolia's 3.2 million people live. In April, thousands of young protesters demonstrated in Sukhbaatar Square.
China is the destination of most of landlocked Mongolia's exports of coal, cashmere, livestock and other resources.
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson who was asked about allegations that coal was stolen for sale inside China said she was unaware of that “specific situation."
“China is a friendly neighbor of Mongolia, and we believe the Mongolian government will properly handle and investigate the matter. The competent Chinese authority will provide necessary assistance as requested by the Mongolian side in accordance with laws and regulations,” Mao said.