Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Mongolian (including regional dialects), Russian, Kazakh
Main religions: Buddhism (majority), Sunni Islam, Christianity, traditional Lamaism
Of an overall population of just over 3 million people, minority ethnic groups include Kazakhs 114,500 (3.9 per cent) as well as several Mongol groups: Durvud 71,000 (2.4 per cent), Bayad 50,800 (1.7 per cent), Buriad 37,900 (1.3 per cent) and Dariganga 26,800 (0.9 per cent) (2015 National Census).
In terms of religion, while the majority (53 per cent) of those surveyed in the 2010 Census identified as Buddhist, the most significant religious minority in the country were Muslims, who accounted for 3 per cent of the population. A further 2.9 per cent of the population identified as shamanist and 2.1 per cent as Christian. The remainder – 38.6 per cent of the population – claimed to have no religious identity.
Mongolia is a fairly homogenous, sparsely populated country. While some 90 percent of the population is of Mongol background, mainly Khalkh (84.5 percent) as well as Durvud and other Mongol groups, there is a fairly substantial Kazakh-speaking Muslim minority concentrated mainly in the northwest corner of the country in the western province of Bayan-Ölgii. There are a number of other Mongol groups with distinct dialects and cultures such as the Durbet, Bayad, Buryat, and Dariganga Mongols. Yet open to debate is whether they speak dialects or Mongolian languages distinct from the official Khalkh Mongolian used by the government and spoken mainly in the central parts of the country.
In addition to Kazakhs there are some other small groups of Turkic-speaking minorities and indigenous peoples in the western and northern parts of Mongolia: Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tuvans (or Tuvinians), Urianhais and Hotons.
Very small minority and indigenous communities have garnered some international attention in recent years. Numbering some 250 individuals in the whole country, the indigenous Tuvinian-speaking Tsaatan (also known as Dukha) reindeer herders live in the Sayan Mountains around Lake Khövsgöl in northern Mongolia. Another indigenous people is the Evenk, who speak a Tungusic language. There are also clusters of Russian and Chinese residents living mainly in cities.
Updated May 2020
Owing in significant part to economic liberalization and globalization, a key issue faced by indigenous peoples and minorities in Mongolia is the extractive industry. Passed in 2009, the Law on Prohibiting Mineral Exploration and Extraction Near Water Sources, Water Protection Zones and Forests was aimed at regulating mining activities and protecting Mongolia’s most delicate ecosystems. However, due to significant international pressure, the government weakened the law in 2015 to allow interference at the level of implementation, effectively opening numerous previously protected areas up to mining license-holders. Although there has been civil society opposition and public demonstrations against the amendment, the Mongolian government regards this move as key to strengthening ties between Mongolia and potential international investors, thereby boosting the economy.
Yet Mongolia’s heavy dependence on its natural resources, has often come at the expense of its environment and local communities, and the benefits of resource extraction have not been adequately distributed to rural or indigenous people, or other disproportionately affected or disadvantaged communities. This trend is illustrated, for instance, by the development of the controversial Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine by Rio Tinto. The multi-billion-dollar mining project, located in the south of the country, has been opposed by local herders and civil society organizations due to the destructive impact the development will have on the surrounding environment. In February 2015, however, following a national text message referendum, Mongolia agreed to further development of the mine despite opposition from environmental groups.
Pastoralist livelihoods are threatened not only by the mine itself, but also by the infrastructure connecting it to China, which runs through traditional grazing and pasture lands. Herders have consistently complained about inadequate compensation for their land. Rising nationalism, linked in part to resentment of the role of international companies in mining and natural resource extraction, has intensified anti-foreigner sentiment in Mongolia, particularly towards Chinese nationals. This is reflected in regular incidents of abuse and even violence towards migrants, foreign minorities and visitors. Anti-Chinese sentiment has also played a role in the country’s electoral politics, with Battulga Khaltmaa becoming President in 2017 following a campaign driven by hostile rhetoric towards China.
Mongolia’s relatively recent transition to a market economy, as well as limited livelihood opportunities in the countryside, has also driven rapid urban growth in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar – a process that has unfortunately outpaced the development of public services and infrastructure. In certain districts more than half of the population live in ger, traditional nomadic yurts of wool and felt, in lots for which they do not hold land titles. Forced evictions continue to occur against a backdrop of rising property prices and increasing competition for space, with families evicted without consultation and communities harassed by real estate companies, which have even cut off water and electricity supplies to pressure them to leave. Ger residents also have limited access to essential services such as sanitation, education, and health.
Many are families of former herders who have been pushed to the city by desertification and the harsh winters of the steppe. Following a period of extreme cold in 2010 – known as a dzud, meaning ‘white death’ – that resulted in the deaths of millions of livestock, thousands of herders moved into gers on the edge of the city. They continue to make up a significant proportion of those migrating to the city each year. The increasing settlement of rural and formerly nomadic Mongolians around Ulaanbaatar has contributed to the erosion of their traditional lifestyles. In addition to migration in order to find work, herders are also moving closer to markets in towns, particularly near Ulaanbaatar, because they are switching from subsistence husbandry to raising animals for sale. Many residents of poorer areas of Ulaanbaatar rely on herders for their food supply, which results in more seasonal migration to the city; a number of such in-migrants return to the countryside for the summer months. To keep warm during winter, migrant families are often forced to burn whatever materials they can find, fuelling extreme levels of pollution in their immediate vicinity.
Although not as severe as the dzud at the beginning of the decade, another extreme cold spell in 2017-18 was an urgent reminder of how vulnerable nomadic Mongolians are to climatic conditions. By March 2018, more than 700,000 livestock had been killed – the highest figure since 2011.
An especially concerning issue in recent years has been the status of minority languages, with a lack of adequate resources, teachers and textbooks for non-Mongolian education. As Kazakhs are particularly affected by limited learning opportunities, the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan sends textbooks and educational and teaching materials to Mongolia in order to allow Kazakh children to learn about Kazakh history, culture and language. Large numbers of Tuvan children have also faced difficulties in accessing education and have had to travel to attend schools in the capital where they cannot study in their native language. As a result, the government has subsidized home-schooling programmes in remote areas and facilitated a larger internationally funded project that aims to improve education for nomadic children in the most disadvantaged rural communities in Mongolia, including through providing new education and teaching materials printed in the Tuvan language. Related challenges are especially acute for the indigenous Dukha (also known as Tsaatan) community, a Tuvan sub-group, with some 50 families remaining in the far west of the country. Civil society organizations have complained that Dukha children are unable to access Tuvan language classes, despite this right being guaranteed in Mongolia’s Constitution.
The Dukha community has also faced other difficulties in sustaining their traditional customs and ways of life. Native for thousands of years in the forests of Mongolia’s northernmost province of Khövsgöl, this small nomadic community has long depended on reindeer herding as a source of livelihood, spirituality and collective identity – a practice now under threat due to modernization and the increasing presence of development activities such as mining. In 2013, much of the Dukha community’s traditional territory was designated a conservation area by the Mongolian government, with all hunting prohibited and strict regulations on where they can legally camp. If caught hunting, Dukha must pay large fines or risk spending time in jail. Their movement is also increasingly restricted, with official permission needed to visit their more remote camps.
Updated May 2020
The world’s largest landlocked country, wedged between China and Russia in central-east Asia, Mongolia is mainly comprised of arid steppes in its heartland and the Gobi Desert in the south. More than a quarter of the country’s population is nomadic or semi-nomadic, though this number is diminishing due to changing climatic conditions and increasing urbanization. Its geographical connection to central Asia’s steppes has contributed to Mongolia being, at various times throughout history, a major transit – and starting – point for the migration of different peoples.
Though various groups have historically been present in what is now Mongolia, the ancestors of today’s ethnic Mongolians became predominant – and would remain so – from about the 10th century. One development which affected the identity of the country’s population was the conversion of the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan to Tibetan, or Vajrayana, Buddhism in the early 17th century. Most Mongolians today still follow this faith. Despite being ruled by the Manchus under the Qing Dynasty for some 200 years, the ethnic composition of Mongolia has not altered dramatically. Mongolia remains one of the world’s more homogenous countries culturally and linguistically.
Yet smaller ethnic groups already established in the region and population movements from neighbouring countries have also been woven into the social fabric of what is today Mongolia. There has been a continued presence of small indigenous peoples such as the Tsaatan and Evenk and the eventual presence of a large Kazakh minority.
The world’s second communist country when it gained independence in 1921, with the assistance and under the protection of the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s ethnic makeup did not change dramatically for decades. Other than Kazakh schools operating since the 1940s, ethnic minorities were largely unseen and unknown in terms of actual government-supported policies.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc led to some demographic changes with the departure of large numbers of Soviet soldiers and various workers and advisers. Around 70,000 Kazakhs also left the country by the end of 2000, partially in response to the more favourable economic situation in Kazakhstan compared to Mongolia, and owing to the former government’s call for ethnic Kazakhs to ‘come home’.
It is also suggested that more Kazakhs and other minorities in the western part of the country may have emigrated after the disastrous winters of 2001 and 2002 when extreme cold weather destroyed six million heads of cattle, placing much of the country on the brink of famine. One report identified an upsurge of families migrating to Kazakhstan in 2004.
Mongolia has increasingly sought to strengthen its human rights credentials after it started shifting away from its highly centralized political and economic system towards liberalization in the early 1990s. Mongolia formally became a democracy in 1996 when elections resulted in the country’s first non-Communist government. In 1999 Mongolia began adopting various legislative provisions prohibiting different types of discrimination in its labour laws. 2001 saw the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia and in the following years, the government ratified various international human rights texts including the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. More recently, other human rights instruments that have been ratified by Mongolia include the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination.
In Mongolia there has historically been a tendency to view the country as only containing ethnic Mongolians and denying or failing to acknowledge the presence of minorities and indigenous peoples. Despite the 1992 Constitution recognizing ‘the right of national minorities of other tongues to use their native languages in education and communication and in the pursuit of cultural, artistic and scientific activities’, and the 1995 Basic Principles of Education and Education Law stating that citizens ‘shall be provided with conditions to learn in his or her native language’, there is in fact no implementation mechanism or process in place to ensure that these rights are recognized and exercised in practice.
There is no clear government policy on mother tongue or bilingual education for minorities, despite the principles enshrined in the Constitution. So widespread is the view within the government that Mongolia is made up almost exclusively of ethnic Mongolians that it has until recently almost consistently omitted in its reports to various human rights bodies any mention or statistic on the existence or treatment of minorities and indigenous peoples within its borders.
Mongolia’s policies cannot be described as involving only benign neglect. As the Mongolian language in its Khalkh variant has been the state’s only official language since the creation of independent Mongolia, there has been a tendency – with the exception of the Kazakh language, mainly in the area of primary education and then transiting towards a greater proportion of instruction in Mongolian in later years – to ignore any other possible use of minority languages in state schools or services, even where minorities might be present in substantial numbers. Even in relation to Kazakh-language state schools, the government’s approach has been problematic: until 2005, teachers in Kazakh schools were only provided textbooks and teaching materials in Mongolian, even if the language of instruction was Kazakh. Furthermore, in areas with mixed populations authorities have tended to refuse providing instructions in Kazakh. It has been suggested that one reason for the authorities’ unresponsiveness is Mongolia’s limited financial resources.
The language policies of state authorities in the western province of Bayan–Ölgii, where around three-quarters of Mongolia’s Kazakhs are concentrated, can also be deemed discriminatory and at least partly explains why Kazakhs have been so underrepresented in terms of employment in government positions. As these roles are dependent on fluency in Mongolian – and many Kazakhs in the province have tended to be less fluent than native Khalkh speakers – the refusal to apply some form of official bilingualism in the province has resulted in far fewer opportunities for this minority.
Other policies have greatly impacted the livelihoods of indigenous peoples by restricting – if not prohibiting completely – their traditional hunting or reindeer breeding activities. In combination with schooling which has not permitted the teaching of the languages of the Evenk and Tsaatan, these policies have for the most part continued unabated. As for the treatment of religious minorities, government policies and practices in the last decade have largely embodied non-interference and tolerance of freedom of religion or belief.
Updated May 2020
Centre for Human Rights and Development
National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia
Updated May 2020