Sunday, October 10, 2010

Consolidating young democracy in Mongolia

After nearly a century of history, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, has recently decided to change its name to Mongolian People's Party (MRM). By deleting "revolution", the party leaders hope to connect with the Mongolians who want freer and unorthodox live style. The purpose is to win the next election scheduled in 2012. Ruling and opposition parties have already begun to woo voters, who are young and restless given the current economic and political dynamic of this vast nomad land, three-time the size of Thailand. To win the next election, politicians have become very public-relation conscious and are coming out with economic platforms with giveaway cash and numerous incentives.

In an exclusive interview with the Inside Asia* recently,, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj at his office, it was clear that Mongolia's democracy is not only irreversible but it is consolidating despite all the ups and downs. Most importantly, his country is moving forward to integrate with the world community of democracies. Unmistakably, the 2.7 Mongolians living the world's largest landlocked ountry�some I interviewed--are also proud of this fact and share this common objective. The Community of Democracies, an international conference to promote democracy world-wide, will be held in Ulaan Baatar in 2013.

Elbegdorj knows very well all the democratic challenges his country has to face in dismantling old system and mind sets. Lack of transparency, corruption impunity, respect of human rights and injustice are some of the top challenges that impede functional democracy. Back in 1990, he was one of the thousands of young activists protesting at the Sukhbaatar Square that eventually brought down the totalitarian regime ruling the country since 1924. During the two-decade of transition, he served twice as prime ministers and only returned as president only last May when his party, Democratic Party, joined the MRM for a coalition government followed the 2008 election, which was labeled free and fair by international observers.

In the continental East Asia, apart from Korea, Mongolia is the most democratic country with free press. Elbegdorj reiterated that Mongolia's young democracy respects liberty, freedom and promotes human rights. New York-based Freedom House this year rated the country as free. In comparison, all Southeast Asian countries were rated as partly free and not-free. Unfortunately, for outsiders, Mongolia is suffering from an identity dilemma as it is commonly known as part of Central Asia due to its long association with the former Soviet governed Central Asia such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan.

Although the political crisis in Burma was not featured during the interview, it is an open secret that the president is an avid supporter of the democratic movement in Burma, especially Aung San Suu Kyi. Together with many former prime ministers and Nobel prize laureates, he has issued several statements calling for her freedom and all political prisoners.

Indeed, it is a major achievement that Mongolian democracy has survived in the past twenty years. When talking to non-governmental organizations, one got a pretty grim view of the country's democratic future. They said democracy is in the decline in the past five years because of corrupted politicians and cronyism without much public engagement. But the president said that his government is inviting views and welcoming participation from the estimated 7,000 nongovernmental organizations. Under his government, representatives from government and civil society organizations would hold talks every first Tuesday of each month.

Last December, Elbegdorj established Citizens' Hall to encourage the civil participation in planning and decision-making process. This is part of the government's plan to decentralize the central authorities to the rest of country.

Such gathering help the government and public to reconcile their differences over issues related to natural resource extraction. Mining of gold, copper and coals have already generated huge revenues which could turn Mongolia into the region's fastest economy in coming years. The president said he would like to use the money for building up social welfare that ordinary people can benefit, not as a giveaway.

Situated in the heartland of continental East Asia, Mongolia is sandwiched by the region's two superpowers, China to the south and Russia to the north. Due mainly to this strategic location, Mongolia has pursued the so-called "third neighbor policy" with the rest of Asia, especially Asean. Former foreign minister Sanjaarsuren Oyun, now a prominent opposition figure, was equally succinct in saying that Mongolia needs to integrate with broader Asia, including Asean, to promote economic and social development. "That is the future of Mongolia," she said. During the interview, the president said that this landlocked country would like to join the much heralded East Asian Summit, after both the US and Russia have been admitted to the leaders' forum.

Mongolia is a member of the region-wide security network, the Asean Regional Forum, since 1998 and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2005. It has diplomatic ties with all Asean countries but with embassies only in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Thailand maintains a consular office in Ulaan Baataar. Elbegdorj wishes one day Mongolia can become a dialogue partner of Asean.

Two remarkable developments that come with democratization process have been the revival of long suppressed Buddhism and traditional medicine in Mongolia. Earl this month, a group of 60 top Mahayana monks and scholars from Asia gathered at Gandan Monastery outside Ulaan Baatar to discuss ways to help build monasteries in Mongolia and revive Buddhist culture and art with links to Tibet as well as Bhutan. They have pledged to help train young Mongolian Buddhist monks, numbering only a few thousand throughout the country. Some young monks have studies study Tibetan art including painting in Dharmsala, India.

With more than 2,000 years of history, the Mongolian traditional medicine is also making a comeback in a big way since 1990, supported by the government. Such approach has improved the overall public health care in this country. Most importantly, it fits in the lifestyle of herdsmen living in different remote places far away from hospitals. The Nation, Bangkok

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