Thousands of people have braved freezing temperatures in Mongolia’s capital to protest against alleged corruption in the country’s coal industry and soaring inflation, with some later attempting to storm government house.
Protesters, many of them young people, rallied in Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbaatar Square in -21C (-6F) temperatures on Monday, demanding “justice” against corrupt officials and calling for the country’s parliament to be dismissed.
“Help us our country is collapsing,” read one placard. Some herders also travelled to the city to take part in the rallies.
Protesters are frustrated with the country’s ailing economy, with inflation soaring to 15.2 percent in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and closed borders affecting trade with neighbouring China.
People are “suffering incredibly economically,” Jana Zilkova, country director for the aid group Caritas Czech Republic in Ulaanbaatar, told Al Jazeera.
Whistleblower claims that a group of legislators with ties to the coal industry had stolen billions of dollars have added to the discontent.
“People are upset and angry over this case because they were promised the wealth of the country would be shared with them,” Zilkova added.
The police tried to break up the demonstration at 9pm local time (13:00 GMT) but some protesters tried to force their way into the government building, knocking down barriers and breaking windows, according to local media reports. Police intervened and most protesters had left the square a couple of hours later.
Last month, Mongolia’s anti-corruption authority announced that more than 30 officials — including the chief executive of the state-owned coal mining company Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi — were under investigation for embezzlement.
The firm controls the Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi deposits, which contain 7.5 billion tonnes of coking coal — an essential ingredient in the steelmaking process and a key component of Mongolia’s state budget revenue. It is yet to comment on the allegations.
Protesters in #Mongolia are trying to storm the Government House. The road to the prime minister’s residence has already been blocked by police.
According to media reports, protests in the country erupted after reports that officials had stolen large quantities of coal. pic.twitter.com/SlzsVMh3wS
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) December 5, 2022
The implicated legislators are alleged to have leveraged their ownership of coal mines and companies that transport coal across the border into China to make illegal profits.
Mongolia sends 86 percent of its exports to China, with coal accounting for more than half the total. A quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from mining.
Monday’s rally came a day after several hundred protesters gathered in the capital, according to the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar.
Protesters attempted to march on Ikh Tenger, the official residence of the President and Prime Minister, “where they were stopped by a police barricade,” the embassy said.
Khurelsukh Ukhnaa was elected president in June last year, months after he had been forced to resign as prime minister amid public outrage over the treatment of a COVID-19 patient and her newborn baby.