ULAN BATOR – Over the last decade, Mongols have rapidly begun to concentrate here in its capital, as well as other cities.
This trend is accelerating and making Ulan Bator an unbearably crowded place, though still relatively small in comparison with most of China’s major cities. Nevertheless, the impact may be more drastic on a nation historically made of nomadic people.
After the declaration of independence in 1924, Ulan Bator’s city planning was directed by the Soviet Union. The capital was designed to contain a maximum population of 400,000.
In recent years, however, it has rapidly become home to 1.3 million people, almost half of Mongolia’s entire population.
Traffic is one of Ulan Bator’s major issues. On the roads, which are not wide to start with, some drive on the right, some on the left. Apart from the very center of the capital, there aren’t many traffic lights at intersections, and the result is horrendous traffic jams.
Another of Ulan Bator’s ills is pollution, which largely comes from the raw coal that the majority of the habitants burn for heating in the long winter. As for the herders who live on the hillside, they generally use dried cow dung as fuel. In the winter, the atmosphere above the city is full of the soot and smoke.
Go to the capital
Still, more and more Mongols and their flocks are marching towards the capital. According to Mongolian law, any Mongol can move around freely. Around the cities, as long as they make a demand, they get a free piece of land of 0.7 hectare to tie down their yurt, the traditional portable round dwelling, and keep their flock. Herders are increasingly moving closer to the capital, often settling down on the outlying hillsides.
Ulan Bator is a city surrounded by mountains; the Tula River, known as the Mother River, traverses the city. Looking at it from afar, the densely dotted yurts look like white galactic disks embedded on green brocade. With the yurts on the slopes complementing the tall buildings in the basin, the capital makes for a unique urban picture indeed.
But why do the herders want to come to the city? It is a complex question. One expert who has studied Mongolian livestock husbandry told me that because of the popularity of television, more and more Mongols are gradually getting to know about modern society. The young Mongol generation aspires to have contacts with the outside world, and going into the city is the only way to do that.
The Mongolian population has a median age of 35, a young country indeed.
Out of the 2.7 million Mongols, more than 300,000 go and study or work in Japan, South Korea and China. The majority of the Mongol ruling class has had foreign experience. They are having a great influence on Mongolia’s opening up to the outside world.
Another reason for the move to the cities is that the desertification of Mongolian territory. Suitable land for pasture is decreasing year by year, and it is becoming more and more difficult to pursue a nomadic life style.
With the acceleration of urbanization, Ulan Bator’s real estate sector is burgeoning. Rent is extremely expensive. In a country where annual GDP per capita is only $3,042, an apartment of 30 square meters costs $300 to $400 per month.
For ordinary residents of the capital, 30 square meter apartments are the norm. A living room plus a bathroom, just like a standard hotel room, makes up a household’s entire living space. They receive guests and eat in the same room. They, of course, also sleep in it, just like in a yurt. The earliest yurts didn’t have beds anyway, and Mongols often slept on a felt rug on the floor.
What foreigners notice most about Ulan Bator may be all its pubs. They are in every corner of the capital and full of drunken men, even in the day time. In a place where there are only three months of warm weather, a drinking culture runs deep.
The wealth disparity is wide in Mongolia. For most herders who are newly arrived in the capital, they came with no tradition of saving money. After selling off their flocks they can only afford to live in yurts. Buying a house is an unreachable dream for them.
Over time, their children grow up and yearn to live in a building, to have convenient living facilities, to watch television, and to surf online. The diligent ones can find their own place in the rapidly developing city. They work for foreign companies from all over the world, adapt to the urban life and become Mongolia’s middle class.
Others, however, are bound to remain marginalized, unable to adapt to the city’s rhythms or to secure a livelihood.
Nevertheless, more herdsmen are bound to become city folk. The process may take a generation or two, but by now it appears inevitable.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
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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