Police in Inner Mongolia on high alert over planned protests
Verna Yu and Laura Zhou
Police were on high alert in several parts of Inner Mongolia yesterday to prevent residents from staging planned protests after the hit-and-run death of a Mongolian herder sparked ethnic tensions.
Thousands of ethnic Mongolians protested last week against the death of a herder named Mergen who was run over on May 10 as he tried to stop coal trucks from taking a shortcut across grazing land, according to the United States-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre.
The demonstrations are believed to be the largest in the autonomous region in two decades.
The centre said martial law has been declared in three major cities in the region - Hohhot, Tongliao and Chifeng - as well as Dongsheng after the protests.
'It's almost impossible for the [planned] protests to take place,' centre director Enghebatu Togochog said.
Residents contacted by phone said large numbers of police and troops had been deployed to patrol city centres, seal off public squares and guard university entrances in Hohhot, the regional capital, and Xilinhot .
A hotel employee in central Hohhot said police were on guard around Xinhua Square, the site of a planned demonstration.
A university professor said students had been barred from leaving campuses and Hohhot residents received text messages advising them not to go out.
'The atmosphere has turned a bit nervous,' he said.
About 500 kilometres northwest of Hohhot, security was tight in Xilingol league, a prefecture-level division where the first protests erupted following the herder's death. A local businessman said the main street of the league's capital, Xilinhot, had been sealed off and troops were patrolling the streets. He said he saw more than 20 military vehicles carrying troops leaving a barracks in the morning, 'but no one knows why'.
Hundreds of people marched to the Xilinhot government headquarters last Tuesday, protesting against the herder's death, the centre said. More than 40 ethnic Mongolian herders and students were arrested on Friday after a clash with hundreds of police.
Hundreds of Mongolian students and herders took to the streets of Chifeng on Saturday, the centre said. Residents of Chifeng, 600 kilometres northeast of Hohhot, said police guarded a school entrance and patrolled the city centre on Saturday.
A worker in Tongliao, 900km northeast of Hohhot, said more police had been patrolling the streets in recent days, but residents did not know why.
Riot police and troops had been dispatched to Tongliao, home to the largest ethnic Mongolian population in the region, and most Mongolian schools and colleges were under heavy guard, the centre said.
It quoted Almas Sharnud, a dissident and activist in Tongliao, as saying that hundreds of Mongolians gathered near the city's Sharmurun Square on Saturday but troops quickly dispersed them.
Social media, including instant messaging service QQ, text messaging and internet chat rooms that played a key role in organising protests in the region, have mostly been closed, the centre said.
The Inner Mongolian government did not respond to a request for comment.
The crisis is seen as a test for Hu Chunhua, the 48-year-old Communist Party chief of Inner Mongolia. Hu, a rising star who is a protege of President Hu Jintao, is tipped to be a contender for the Politburo in next year's leadership reshuffle. Observers say his position might be at stake if the protests escalate like rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang did in recent years.