Police sealed off parts of two county seats in China's Inner Mongolia for a second day Saturday in what residents described as a kind of martial law after protests triggered by the death of a Mongolian herder run over by a Chinese truck driver.
The demonstrations this past week in two counties and a nearby city are rare for Inner Mongolia, unlike China's other troubled border regions of Tibet and Xinjiang which have erupted in violent protests in recent years.
While no protests were reported Saturday, residents said police continued to cordon off streets leading to government buildings in the seats of the two counties, known as Zhenglan and Xiwu in Chinese or Shuluun Huh and Ujumchin in Mongolian.
"Martial law was imposed around the government again today. About 100 armed police carrying batons are stationed there. People are barred from entering that area," said a retiree living in the Zhenglan county seat who was reached by phone. He would only identify himself by his surname, Wang.
High school students in Zhenglan were also being kept in school over the weekend to prevent them from protesting, according to a New York-based advocacy group, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. It said universities and schools in at least two other major cities in the region were under tight security, and chat rooms on a popular instant messaging service were being closed down.
The report could not be independently verified. Calls to government offices rang unanswered, or in the case of Xilinhot city _ near the two troubled counties _ a duty officer referred questions to the cellphone of the government's chief secretary, which also was not answered.
With tensions high, Amnesty International urged the government to exercise restraint. "The Chinese authorities must respect freedom of expression and assembly for protesters. Given the heavy handed repression of similar protests in other regions, like Xinjiang and Tibet, there are real grounds for concern about the situation in Inner Mongolia," Catherine Baber, the group's Asia Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.
The protests are believed to be the region's largest in 20 years. Protests occurred every day this past week in the two county seats and Xilinhot, with the largest a march by thousands of Mongolians led by students in uniform on Wednesday in Xilinhot. Hundreds of herders marched in Zhenglan on Friday until they were stopped by police. Accounts differ over whether a clash ensued.
Behind the protests is a sense that Mongolian identity is under threat. Their traditional way of life _ herding sheep and cattle _ has almost disappeared as the grasslands give out to mining, farming and urban sprawl. A coal mining boom is accelerating the degradation, and a standoff between herders and coal truckers precipitated the recent protests.
Angry at truckers for driving over their grazing lands, herders blocked a road, and one truck driver struck and killed a herder, Mergen, who like many Mongolians goes by one name. Authorities later arrested two Chinese in the incident.
Unlike Tibetans in Tibet and Uighurs in Xinjiang, ethnic Mongolians are a small minority, less than 20 percent of the 24 million people in Inner Mongolia. Many speak little or no Mongolian, having been educated in Chinese school systems.