Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mongolians brave freezing nights in fight for justice

Mongolians brave freezing nights in fight for justice

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AFP) - Bundled up in thick layers to battle temperatures below freezing, Mongolians are sleeping rough in the heart of their capital and say they will not leave until officials accused of corruption are punished.

Protests in the landlocked East Asian nation entered their eighth day Monday, with thousands rallying in central Ulaanbaatar furious over claims a faction of lawmakers and executives stole billions of dollars in coal.

Many have taken to spending the night in the central Genghis Khan Square, also known as Sukhbaatar Square, despite temperatures regularly dropping beneath minus 30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sporting sheepskin deel -- a traditional long tunic-like garment -- as well as wolfskin jackets and horseskin boots to keep warm, and sleeping on polystyrene foam and felt, they are determined to stay for as long as it takes to get justice.

"I will stay here until the thieves receive punishment," a woman who had been sleeping in the square for four days told AFP.

She declined to be identified and said she feared for her safety after some protesters were beaten by police last week.

Demonstrators say they have been emboldened by public support, with residents sharing provisions and words of encouragement. Celebrities and social media influencers have even joined calls for action.

"So many people care about us. Ordinary people keep bringing hot food and drinks and donating warm clothes," 22-year-old protester Ariunzaya Tsengelsaikhan told AFP. "It's warm if you sleep between two people and stick with each other and we change positions every two hours to make sure everybody is warm," she said.

"Two days ago, after I gave an interview for public television, a man gave me a sleeping bag and a mat." Authorities have refused to allow protesters to erect ger -- traditional Mongolian tents -- in the north of the square, where they would face the imposing statue of national hero Genghis Khan and the parliament.

"Dogs sleep outdoors on felt. The government treats us like dogs. We are sleeping on felt," said the protester, who asked to remain anonymous. "We want to build a ger to stay warm and continue our protest."

The government has announced the arrest of Gankhuyag Battulga, former CEO of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi -- one of Mongolia's largest coal-mining firms -- along with more than a dozen others accused of laundering money from embezzled coal. Those arrests have failed to quell the public anger.

"We want the big fish," said Bayaraa Damiran, a 30-year-old protester who has been sleeping on the square. "They arrested seven or eight officials who were on the bottom. We want to know the big fish at the top."