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New Forms of Political Protests in Ulaanbaatar: Calling for Justice through Shoes

By Guest Contributor , on 28 April 2016

This post was written by Sh. Tuya, a researcher on the Emerging Subjects project.  

On April 7th, the Chinggis Khaan Square in front of the government palace was covered in shoes of all variety.  Strikingly, the protest was a quiet space devoid of people themselves protesting.  The protest was part of series of campaigns organized by the Mongolian Youth Association (further referred as MYA), titled Mongolia without Thieves: Black List, White List.

chinggis square

Shoe Protest in front of the government building on Chinggis Square. 6 April 2016.

 

Black List, White List

The black list was compiled by the MYA and includes names of public figures that should not be permitted to run in rural constituencies for parliamentary elections and the Citizen’s Representative Khural.[1]  The release of the list as mentioned by the President of the MYA was scheduled to take place on October 2nd, 2015, the day that S, Zorig, the leader of democratic movements in Mongolia, was assassinated.[2]  However, the release of the list was postponed until closer to the elections in spring. The campaign was criticized by another youth association, mainly the Union of Mongolian Students (further referred as UMS) for politicizing the MYA and implicating it in political party propaganda.[3]  The statement was released after the end of a brief coalition between the MYA and UMS in spring. According to the press release, the UMS was abandoning the coalition because of the list and because the MYA’s new board members have a political background. The statement further emphasized that non-government organization such as the MYA do not have legitimate right to accuse individuals without proper legal procedure and that only the justice system has a right to issue trials and pardoning procedures.[4]

Why Shoes and Not Faces?

The shoe protests in Ulaanbaatar first struck me as similar to the shoe protest in Paris last fall, where 10,000 shoes that stood in for a large protest that was cancelled during the Paris Climate Talks following attacks on the city.  However this protest, unlike its original counterpart in Paris, was not seeking to address a global environmental issue and there wasn’t a ban on authorized demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar.

The shoe protest took place for one day in a controlled space on the far west side of the square.  All the shoes were placed in space fenced off by the police.  At the center of the fenced-in space stood a giant shoe with a display covered in black and white reading: “White List: We Will Elect, Let’s Liberate!” When I entered the fence to snap photographs of the shoes, I noticed small tablets attached to each pair with individual pleas. The tablets read a range of frustrations covering many aspects of society, including political, economic, culture and even the sex industry.

For instance, one pair of shoes complained about the devaluation of meritorious titles that have existed since the socialist era, such as STA “Soyolyn Terguunii Ajiltan” (Leading Cultural Worker). A pair of worn out boots proposed to legalize sex workers and allocate a street for them. The messages on tablets were very broad and subjective, which did not sit well with just the political agenda of the upcoming elections.

The overall site was modest in size, with a few curious people approaching the table where pamphlets were given out.  I arrived there at 11 in the morning during a workday and most of the small crowd of people consisted of elderly people, students who worked at the booth, and several journalists snapping photos. If a young population of workers and students wanted to show their frustration, this was indeed a convenient method of protest with no missed office hours or classes. Even though the title, White List/Black List, seemed threatening, the protest itself did not feel this way.

shoe protest 1

shoe protest 2

“Leading Cultural Workers (i.e. artists) have become worthless!!!!!”

shoe protest 3

Sign calling for the dedication of a “pink street” for sex workers.

 

Hashtag #хөлфи (#shoelfie): Active social media discussions versus absent physical protest

The media coverage of the protest was quite high both in official outlets, as well as on social networking websites, especially Twitter. A Twitter hashtag, #хөлфи –meaning shoelfie, a reference to shoe selfies – went viral.

Both the form of the protest and its performative aspect point to specific aesthetics that are emerging as civil society critique of the failures of the state. The appeal of the faceless protest was novel in its performative approach, which resonated well with the internet culture where people are expected to perform a certain role on a daily basis. The political message of the protest outlined the appeal of the moral aesthetics of politics. The range of individual messages all united under the face of black and white questioned what is good and beautiful as opposed to bad and repulsive. Perhaps, that’s why the messages even included frustrations with so many clandestine topics that are not discussed in public life, such as legalization of sex workers, getting rid of useless artist titles, and lack of cash money among students.

Furthermore, given that the public is becoming increasingly aware of censorship and surveillance, a ‘faceless’ protest of shoes may seem to be a less risky protest strategy.  Since there were no faces or names associated with the shoes, the identities of the shoes’ owners is unknown.  This is not the first time such a ‘faceless’ protest has been carried out in Mongolia.  In 2014, people protesting uranium mining and the disposal of radioactive waste in Mongolia donned masks similar to those used by the Anonymous movement during a protest in Chinggis Square.

Vita Peacock, an anthropologist at UCL who studies forms of street protest such as the Anonymous movement, observers that, “the point of being present then, is not to do one thing but to question another.” [5] The performative aspect of anonymity points to the theatrical concept of the double: the functioning of body, an emptied vessel without identifiable subject, and what it represents. Such anonymity allows for direct non-violent action against established hierarchy, according to anarchist anthropologist, David Graber.[6]  The performance guarantees the anonymity of identities that otherwise would threaten directly the fragile state of consensus between the state and the society. Whereas, the physical presence of empty forms of materiality – such as shoes – still challenges the stable understanding of society.

 

Thank you to my research partner, Lauren Bonilla, for contributing to this post.  

All photos © of Sh. Tuya.

 

[1] The Citizens Representatives Khural is an elected, quasi-state institution that is meant to support local, regional, and urban governance ( http://www.khural.mn/en-us/n/8xyy).

[2]  http://khulgaichguimongol.myf.mn/

[3] http://www.bolod.mn/News/146486.html

[4] http://www.bolod.mn/News/146486.html

[5] See Vita Peacock on Anonymous Movements in London: http://allegralaboratory.net/million-mask-marching-performance/

[6] David Graeber, 2004, “Fragments of an Anarchist Antrhopology”, p, 94. Prickly Paradigm Press.

Health and the Economy: Measles, ASEM, and the Elections

By Guest Contributor , on 24 April 2016

The following blog post speaks to current public dissatisfaction and critique. This critique points to the sense many people feel that the current economic climate is very dire and is having a real impact on day-to-day life. Access to health care is increasingly economically restrictive as money is being spent on the beautification of the city for the up-coming Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM); there is talk of election promises rather than focusing on doing things now; and there are shows of bravado police politics while not protecting the health of society’s most vulnerable citizens. This news article by journalist Kh. Uyanga captures well the way many feel the economy and politics is spiraling away from the everyday concerns of individuals. A version of the following post appeared in an online blog called UBLife. Kh Uyunga has kindly written a more comprehensive version for this post.

 

By Kh. Uyanga, on 19 April 2016

Translation: Sh. Nomindari

‘Screw Battulga, ASEM, & the Elections! Aren’t they less sorrowful than the tears of a mother who lost her baby to measles, aren’t they less worthy than human life?!’ A young woman tweeted this post recently on twitter. Her post hit me right away. It summed up perfectly what I was thinking; I keep noticing on social network sites the mounting infant mortalities caused by measles and was thinking to voice it to the government who cares nothing about it. Since I ran into this bitter post written by one mother on “the mothers’ group” on Facebook last week, her words remained stuck in my throat, leaving me unable to speak them outloud.

‘I am giving away these 102 diapers that I have left for my baby’, the young mother’s tearful words go on…This woman lost her baby to measles. A haunting fear for mothers, measles has become a taboo word now. It was hard to even read the post that mother wrote. Nobody can feel what that mother feels. Who could believe that she lost her baby? The baby who was sleeping serenely in the arms of his mom just a couple of days ago, who was shining with the laughter he has just learnt, who couldn’t even drink enough of his mom’s milk. A strong sense of desperation due to the economic and political climate in Mongolia dominates her post, even though she doesn’t want to blame the government. According to her, the rooms of the National Centre for the Studies of Infectious Diseases (NCSID) were full to the brim, making them resemble the field sites of a conflict zone or refugee camps.

Although officials affirm that the health budget of 86 billion tögrögs has been increased by 13 billion tögrögs compared to last year, in reality, the majority of patients complain about the paucity of medical conditions due to the economic crisis. There is an inevitable need to get medical treatments from abroad for the Intensive Treatment Department of the NCSID that works on emergency cases. The sole hope for saving the infants struggling against death is an immunostimulant vaccination called ‘Globulin’. But this vaccination is very rare these days. Some parents even had to buy it with 200 thousand to 300 thousand tögrögs from the street peddlers [a value of about USD$100-150]. This amounts to half a monthly wage for the average Mongolian. Due to this cost, many parents are unable to buy the vaccination.

Photo courtesy of UBLife: http://www.ub.life/society/11/211

Sign reads, MEASLES.  Photo courtesy of UBLife: http://www.ub.life/society/11/211

 

Hiding behind their status as a ‘special entity’, the NCSID doesn’t give any official statistics related to the spread of measles and the issue remains closed to the mass media. But when you go through the first quarter report on the socio-economic situation of Mongolia by the National Statistics and Registration Office, you’ll face some disturbing figures.

At a national level, as of the first quarter of 2016, infant mortality reached 427, with an increase of 33%, or 106 deaths compared to the same period of last year. And child mortality has risen to 491, an increase of 32,3%, or 120 deaths compared to the same period of 2015. Now let’s take a look at the situation only for March from this statistics. For the last month, 183 infants died, indicating a rise of 67,9%; 204 children under 5 year-old lost their lives, pointing out an increase of 63,2% compared to the same period last year. That would indicate an increase of morbidity of 60-70%…

The statistics do not mention the reason for the sudden and drastic increase of infant mortality. However, it is written in black on white, indicating the raise of the patients with infectious diseases to 25,355 people, being multiplied with 2,8 points, including the 15,540 patients of measles. As the mortality of non-infectious diseases doesn’t increase with such speed, one can only deduct that the main reason for infant mortalities increasing at such speed is due to measles.

This is the situation. But I wonder if there is someone who cares about it in the government? Since the health sector is ‘abandoned’, no one talks about the situation. In fact, it appears to me that for the government, it is more important to figure out a way for them to sustain their quarrels and raise funds for the election, rather than find a solution to eradicate the disease that is causing the death of babies.

Let me not ask for the protection of human life from the Health Minister Ts. Oyuunbaatar, who has held the position for six months. Let me ask a question on behalf of the mothers who are suffering from anxiety and fear: it’s been over a year since the measles outbreak, if you can’t stop it, why can’t you at least control it? Why?