Society

This Asian City Is Killing Its Locals With Coal

As winter descends on Mongolia's cold and polluted capital of Ulaanbaatar, toxic coal heating is turning on everywhere. An estimated one resident in 10 dies from the effects of pollution.

Ulaanbaatar, "the most polluted capital on the planet"
Ulaanbaatar, "the most polluted capital on the planet"
Harold Thibault

ULAANBAATAR — Winter is already falling on Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the sight of the greyish smoke rising from yurts in the suburbs of the coldest capital city on Earth is enough to worry 29-year-old Bolormaa Oyunbileg.

“As soon as the hard season begins, things become terrible,” she complains. “Often, we can’t even see the cars at the end of the street anymore.”

This is because of the coal stoves Mongolians use to heat their yurts. Ryan Allen, environmental health researcher at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia, Canada) and author of one of the rare studies on pollution-linked mortality in Ulaanbaatar, attributes one in 10 deaths in the “coal city” to pollution.

The traditional Mongolian shelter is renowned for its capacity to protect nomad families from the cold in the steppes. A stove in the center heats the only room, the shape of which allows for the heat to spread. With 60% of Ulaanbaatar’s 2.8 million inhabitants living in yurts, the issue has become a matter of public health.

Toxic fog

During the harshest winters, travelling shepherds are forced to settle down in the slums surrounding Ulaanbaatar. According to a 2010 census, between 30,000 and 40,000 people occupy these slums every year. If the winter is a particularly harsh one, a family can lose its entire herd of cattle. When this happens, the whole group takes to the road and moves near the capital, hoping to find jobs.

This is what Bolormaa and her husband had to do six years ago. They left the region near Lake Khuvsgul, one of Mongolia’s northernmost spots. At least in the capital, her husband is employed part-time in construction — but they’d prefer to return to rural life. “The smoke is thicker in the morning and in the evening when people cook,” Bolormaa says. “During the whole season my throat hurts and I can't stop coughing. I have a baby, and I fear for her health.” At dawn during December and January, when the outside temperature is -30 °C (-22 °F), the city disappears in this toxic fog.

Smog in Mongolia — Photo: Cory M. Grenier

In December 2011, the World Bank concluded that the exposure in Ulaanbaatar to particulate matter was 10 times higher than the standard for air quality in the country, and six to seven times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends. According to the World Bank, there is no doubt that the Mongolian city is the most polluted capital on the planet.

In the Sharkhad neighborhood, Tuya Gerel, who has been the doctor at the free clinic for three years, says she noticed a surge in the number of respiratory problems, coughing syndromes and allergies. “But it’s difficult to say with certainty whether each case was caused by coal,” she says. “I must say that some of my patients have predispositions.” Oyuna Bata, a local social welfare worker, is not so cautious: “There are no figures, but there are more and more miscarriages, and more and more newborns with pulmonary problems.”

“In my family, everybody coughs”

Thanks to support from international development agencies, the Mongolian government recently implemented a program to help families buy more efficient stoves that use less coal. The stove price for families has fallen from $240 to $35.

Oyuna Bata says some families have availed themselves of the new stoves, but others have different budget priorities and seem resigned to poor air quality. Also, in the winter, the whole neighborhood buys the cheapest, poorest quality coal from a mine in Baganuur, 130 kilometers east of the city. Forty kilos cost the equivalent of $2, but it burns faster and creates much more toxic smoke. “In my family, everybody coughs, and even those who don’t smoke have black lungs,” Oyuna Bata says angrily.

Year after year, Bolormaa’s neighbor, 62-year-old Gantuya Damdin, has seen the air quality of the city worsen. As long as these yurt slums, which are not connected to the central heating system, grow, she doesn’t see how the capital of the “land of the blue sky” can rid itself of this black halo.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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