ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) — A rare public protest in Mongolia's capital on Wednesday drew thousands of demonstrators who criticized foreign mining concessions and demanded action to prop up the tottering economy.
More than 2,000 demonstrators in Ulaanbaatar's Freedom Square also called for parliament to be dissolved and a new government formed over alleged corruption and the economic crisis battering the vast, landlocked nation.
Protesters say the mineral wealth that accounts for 94 percent of the nation's exports has been exploited by foreign companies, with few benefits going to Mongolia's 3 million people, one-third of whom live in poverty.
"Our wealth is shipped outside of the country. Where is that money going?" former wrestler and opposition lawmaker Battulga Khaltmaa asked the crowd assembled by an umbrella group of small political parties and civil society organizations known as Ethical Mongol.
Battulga was particularly critical of the terms extended to Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto PLC to develop the $5.4 billion Oyu Tolgoi copper mine. Talks on expanding the mine have bogged down over the government's demand for more revenue.
Battulga and others also criticized efforts to revive the Tavan Tolgoi coal project, alleging that members of around two dozen influential families with ties to both ruling Mongolian Democratic Party and opposition Mongolian People's Party stand to benefit the most from the deal through their ownership of shares in the Hong Kong-listed Mongolian Mining Corp.
"This business-political group ... has already swallowed its brother, democracy," said Erdenechimeg Luvsan, a Democratic Party lawmaker.
Protesters carried banners reading "Tavan Tolgoi is public property" and "Whatever happened to democracy?"
Parliament last year blocked a proposed deal with an international consortium led by Chinese state-owned mining company Shenhua and Mongolian Mining Corp. and Japan's Sumitomo.
New parliamentary elections are scheduled for June, but critics say the rules will ensure re-election for lawmakers with mining interests in both the ruling and opposition parties.
The global slump in commodity prices has pummeled Mongolia's economy, impoverishing thousands of former herders who had moved to its few cities looking for jobs. China, which receives almost 90 percent of Mongolia's exports, also has an economy that is slowing sharply, further eroding demand for copper, coal and other exports. Foreign investment in the country has practically disappeared.
Economic growth is set to fall below 1 percent this year, down from 17.5 percent earlier in the decade.
Protesters also criticized the arrest by Mongolia's anti-corruption body of several of Battulga's associates, saying it was politically motivated.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Ulaanbaatar.