Chinese authorities must exercise restraint and not carry out a violent crackdown following protests by ethnic Mongolians in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, Amnesty International (AI) said.
China has sealed off parts of Inner Mongolia, a resource-rich region strategically located on the borders of Russia and Mongolia, after recent demonstrations sparked by the hit-and-run death of a Mongolian herder.
Residents have said that parts of Inner Mongolia have been placed under martial law and the New-York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center says people have been injured in clashes with police.
“The Chinese authorities must respect freedom of expression and assembly for protesters,” Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in an e-mailed statement. “Given the heavy handed repression of similar protests in other regions, like Xinjiang and Tibet, there are real grounds for concern about the situation in Inner Mongolia.”
China’s Mongolians, who make up less than 20 percent of the roughly 24 million population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, rarely take to the streets, unlike Tibetans or Xinjiang’s Uighurs, making the latest protests highly unusual.
Repeated telephone calls for comment to government officials in Inner Mongolia have been ignored. State media has also not reported on the unrest.
The protests were set off by the death earlier this month of a Mongolian herder, Mergen, who was killed when he was struck by a coal truck. The government has announced the arrest of two Han Chinese for homicide, though this has failed to stem public anger.
Many Chinese Mongolians go by only one name.
The demonstrations have broadened their scope, with those taking part demanding greater official protection for their culture and traditional way of life.
“At the heart of these demonstrations are long-standing calls to respect human rights and protect Mongolian culture. Over the years, the Chinese authorities have -regularly detained activists and writers making such calls, sentencing some to lengthy imprisonment,” Baber said. “The protests are a wake-up call for the authorities. As in other minority areas, authorities must start heeding the message rather than attacking the messengers.”
“The Chinese authorities must ensure ethnic Mongolians’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and they must avoid using unnecessary or excessive force in policing these protests,” she said.
Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a tenth of China’s land mass and borders Mongolia proper, is supposed to offer a high degree of self-rule.
In practice, though, Mongolians say the Han Chinese -majority run the show and have been the main beneficiaries of economic development.
Inner Mongolia is China’s largest producer of coal, a commodity that feeds well over half the country’s power plants and on which China depends for its breakneck economic growth.