President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj has been described as the “Ambassador for Mongolia” by local journalists for his ability to spread awareness of the country’s growing democracy abroad. He turned a social guffaw captured in September 22, 2011, where his face was obscured by President Barack Obama’s hand during a group photo of democratic leaders taken at the UN Democracy Forum, into a humorous press conference moment. Yet during the conclusion of that same press conference, Mongolia’s president side-stepped questions from the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) about the country’s official stance toward asylum seekers from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China regarding the deportation of Batzangaa October of 2009.
While the presenter let it go, Enghebatu Togochog, director of the SMHRIC, has not. He spoke with Asian Correspondent from the office headquarters in NYC by phone and said the Mongolian government has a long history of deporting asylum seekers from Inner Mongolia. “They are in a honeymoon with China.”
However, Julian Dierkes, a policy expert from the Institute of Asian Research, told Asian Correspondent that the situation is more complicated. “The conventional discussion of asylum would be to see it as a power play by China. Obviously, the Chinese government would not be too keen on Mongolia granting asylum to Inner Mongolian dissidents. On the other hand, if such dissidents gain any prominence, Mongolian politicians may be hard pressed to turn them down.”
Batzangaa, perhaps the most controversial case to date, is an ethnic Mongolian doctor of traditional medicine from the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, whose situation was brushed off by the president of Mongolia during the press conference in 2011. Enghebatu said Batzangaa was deported from Ulaanbaatar by Mongolian and Chinese police with the help of UNHCR.
Batusukhe, the younger brother of Batzangaa who is now seeking asylum himself in Mongolia, fully supports this claim. Batusukhe met with Asian Correspondent in a popular coffee shop in Ulaanbaatar and explained how his brother came to be known as a “Chinese” dissident.
Batzangaa, a Chinese citizen, founded the Ordos Mongol-Tibetan Medical School in Inner Mongolia in 2001 with the full blessing of the Chinese government in support of ethnic heritage. He studied traditional Tibetan-Mongolian medicine in the Qinghai province of China, which is home to a sizable population of Tibetans. After completing his studies, the brother returned to his province in Inner Mongolia as “the diaspora were sent to establish a school” said Batusukhe. As the school was successful, in 2007 he asked the government of Dongsheng District permission to expand. On April 19 of that year, the government approved his request and 5.2 million CNY was invested towards this based on donations from the Inner Mongolian community.
However, after the Tibetan uprisings in March 2008 across Tibetan-populated areas in the Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces, the school fell under suspicion for its strong ties to the region. Mongolians share a nomadic and Buddhist history with Tibetans of revering the Dalai Lama.
Dierkes said “the Chinese government isn’t threatened by pan-mongolism [a political movement to join Inner Mongolians with the country of Mongolia]—not like they are threatened with Tibetans. The Chinese government encourages traditional practices—unless they get a whiff of trouble.”
This whiff of trouble led to swift action on the behalf of the Chinese government as just three months after the unrest, the lease to Batzangaa’s school was cancelled on June 20, 2008. He fought back and appealed to the government based on the prior official approval and recouped a portion of the investment losses but was subsequently pressured to cut ties with the Tibetan community. According to Batusukhe, he refused, claiming he had done nothing wrong. When he received death threats by text message, he fled with his family to Mongolia on May 26, 2009 to seek political asylum.
He registered with the UNHCR in Ulaanbaatar and was given four months of protection beginning June 27 as his case was reviewed. Before his protection status had expired, Batzangaa was asked to come to the UNHCR office by his protection officer, where he was arrested October 3, 2009 by Mongolian and Chinese police. Batusukhe showed Asian Correspondent copies of his brother’s forms, also published by the SMHRIC. The following day he was deported with his family back to China and placed under house arrest.
Batusukhe is disappointed with UNHCR: “Why did this happen? He had a certificate of alien registration and this had not expired yet. I want to know from the head of UNHCR Geneva why they let this happen.”
The Mongolian government has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or agreed to protect asylum-seekers. The regional UNHCR office in Beijing states through its website that it is “advising the Government…in anticipation of accession to the Convention.” A UNHCR spokesperson in Ulaanbaatar told Asian Correspondent they recommended signing the convention during the Universal Periodic Review and the government agreed to “consider” it. However when asked, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they did not know any details.
While studying at a university in Japan Batusukhe became politically active, lobbying for ethnic Mongolian rights in China. “My brother did not tell me to join. It was my own choice.” As political activism is illegal under China’s one-party system, this choice also brands him a dissident.
Batusukhe has also applied for asylum status with UNHCR in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and is registered from March 12, 2013 for a period of one year according to his official resident card. Just one month after he applied for asylum, his brother was arrested by the Chinese government on April 13 for allegedly seeking asylum with a foreign embassy in Guangzhou, which violated the terms of his house arrest. Since that time, the family has had limited contact and is worried about his safety.
While appreciating having a place to live in Mongolia as a registered asylum-seeker, Batusukhe said he does not feel safe because he thinks the Chinese police can take him “anytime,” like his brother.
Xinhua News Agency reported that Batazagaa had embezzled money from his community, noting the Mongolian government had supported his repatriation. However, both the SMHRIC and Batusukhe refute allegations of criminal activity and said this came only after he had refused to break his connections with the Tibetan community.
Where Batzangaa was repeatedly advised to not seek out foreign media while under asylum-seeking status, Batusukhe has learned from his brother’s experience and would like the world to know Mongolians living in China are treated by their government when they embrace their cultural roots in a manner officially condoned by China’s constitution.
There are three other Inner Mongolians seeking asylum in the country, including Tuvsingzaya who has a wife and two children whose asylum-seeking status expires in August. He asks “Why does it [the asylum process] have to take so long?”
If President Elbegdorj is re-elected on June 26th, he might consider promoting an over-haul on the Mongolian government’s stance toward asylum-seekers from Inner Mongolia.
About the author
Michelle Tolson has contributed to Inter Press Service (IPS), the Global Post, Women’s Media Center, Women’s International Perspective, Women’s News Network, the UB Post of Mongol News Group and the Phnom Penh Post. She has also worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia.