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Mongolians brave bitter cold to protest ‘coal theft’ corruption

Protesters gathered in the capital in temperatures well below freezing to denounce perceived government corruption, even after the arrests of eight officials.
/ Source: Reuters

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Mongolian protesters gathered in the capital in temperatures well below freezing on Thursday to denounce perceived government corruption for a fifth day, even after the arrests of eight officials suspected of so-called coal theft.

Thousands have descended on Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar since Sunday, urging the government to name those responsible for at least 385,000 tons of coal unaccounted for between 2013 and 2019.

The government said in October it had discovered the missing coal after comparing Mongolian export data with import data reported by China, its main buyer.

The findings have fueled further resentment over surging living costs and inequality that had already set off protests earlier this year.

Coal generated more than half of Mongolia’s export revenue in the first 10 months of this year, according to central bank data.

“Come out, come out!” people shouted at the government building on Sukhbaatar Square on Thursday. On Monday, protesters had tried to storm the building, but demonstrations have since been peaceful.

Some people carried banners saying “Name the thieves” and “What did you do with taxpayers’ money? We want to live happily in Mongolia.”

A protester waves a Mongolian national flag as protesters gather on the steps of the State Palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Protesters are urging the government to name those responsible for at least 385,000 tons of coal unaccounted for between 2013 and 2019.Alexander Nikolskiy / AP

The government promised on Wednesday to investigate and punish “coal thieves” and named 10 officials under investigation.

Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai has also set up a six-month investigation into state-owned company Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi JSC, which holds mining licenses to the Tavantolgoi coal deposit, the largest in the country.

Gankhuyag Battulga, the former director of the company, and seven others have been arrested, Nyambaatar Khishgee, the minister of justice and internal affairs, told protesters.

But the moves have done little to ease the anger. Some called on Thursday for politician resignations.

“People who steal public funds should be held accountable just as someone who commits a crime is held responsible. We would like to use that money efficiently for development in our country,” said Bolormaa Bayarmagnai, 24, who joined the protest on Thursday.

“Promises were also made during the spring demonstrations. I don’t see any implementation from there,” she added.

Authorities first began investigating coal theft nine years ago, said Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a former member of Parliament and founder of the Civic Unity Party.

“People are now demanding to announce the results of those investigations,” she said.

A public hearing on the coal theft will be held on Dec. 21.