Homeland Associations and the Production of Informal Power in Mongolia
By Guest Contributor , on 5 November 2015
By: Tuya Shagdar.
Tuya Shagdar is a Lecturer and Researcher at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia. She is a researcher on the Emerging Subjects project and is collaborating with Lauren Bonilla.
Over the past several months I have been carrying out research on ‘informal’ political institutions in Mongolia, called Nutgiin Zövlöl (Homeland Associations, hereinafter HA). My fieldwork was commissioned by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in relation to a governance project focusing on so-called ‘Actors of Local Democracy’. The particular choice of Uvs Province HA was suggested by the SDC Ulaanbaatar office. It was believed that Uvs Province HA is among the most active associations, and also because there are a lot of national political leaders who come from this province.
Uvs is situated in the region known as the Western Provinces (baruun aimguud) and is mostly populated by people from the Oirad ethnic group. Mongolia is subdivided into 21 Provinces, or aimags and each aimag has on average 15 districts (soums). Each administrative district constituency has its own HA represented in larger urban areas such as Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan, Erdenet, and some are even rumored to exist in foreign countries such as Switzerland and the U.S. These associations are formed of wider diasporic communities living in provincial centers, cities and towns.
Their main function is to provide assistance to their ‘homeland’ (nutag) through the recruitment of board members that comprise mostly of the political, entrepreneurial, academic, sporting and cultural elites. This network provides an important group where social obligations are performed in exchange for public consent. The social obligations of HA members include taking care of various social needs where state welfare fails to assist on a day-to-day basis. These may include career advancements, business relations, promotion of local talents such as athletes, pop singers, or even just promising young students, as well as caring for the elderly and those who have health needs.
Such associations started appearing in the early 1990s and today each district and province has its own HA, often located at major urban centers. The fact that HAs can be formed with a focus on just one district while simultaneously operating at several urban centers provides an almost infinite matrix of informal networks.
According to my research, three major aspects of HAs influence their specific form of power. The first of these may be termed ‘locality versus ethnicity’. Historically, in nationalist literature, Uvs is often emphasized as a province that is defined by its ethnic identity rather than its geographic location. Ethnically, the current population of Uvs consists of Durvud, Bayad, Khotan, Myangad, Torguud and Iljigen Khalkhas. The Durvuds, Bayads, Myangads and Torguuds make up what was historically known as the Oirat population who in current days are spread through western aimags of Mongolia, Tuva’s People Republic and in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Oirats derive their name from the term “Four Oirat Tumen”, a population that did not belong to the Mongol Six Tumen, who ethnically were not Khalkh and were not obliged to pay taxes to the Mongol Khans. They were considered as independent only to come for temporary unity to become what is known as The Four and Forty pair to form a state. Such political distinction from the rest of Khalkh population was further emphasized through cultural production such as separate writing system, Tod Bichig, introduced by a leading Oirad intellectual Zaya Pandida and proliferation of folklore literature, for instance Janghar epic. However, following several administrative re-arrangements in early twentieth century the modern geo-body (Winichakul 1994) of western aimags emerged including separation of former Dörvöd Dalai Han aimag into modern day Uvs and Hovd. Later in 1990 the electoral system of Mongolia becomes tied to the administrative provinces and locality becomes a powerful narrative in the political mobilization process.
Secondly, focusing on the composition of people who make up HAs from Uvs, I have compared this to literature on earlier versions of HAs that exit among Mongolian students abroad and compared their structure and organization. I have also explored ideas about Uvs identity, Uvs Man, and UBS Party, and examined if these differing identities are as stable as they often claim to be. It should be stressed that the notion of the Uvs “native” is not meant to imply that this concept is a stable identity, well rooted in a long history. On the contrary if anything, Uvs identity and the recently-coined concept of Uvs Man, are rather vague and fluid notions, largely constructed by the elite. A former governor of Uvs, E. Tsaschiher opened a debate on the authenticity of Uvs identity when he proposed a program entitled “Uvs man, a model guide to development” (Uvs Hun Hugjliin Hutuch Zagvar) which he published in 2011. Most of the criticism that this provoked came from political journalists arguing that concepts of this sort further divided Mongolians, creating identities based on administrative entities in their context of political elections. Such criticism is mostly directed against the concept of ‘nutug-ism’ (nutgarhah uzel) mentioned in Sneath’s article, a construction of identity around the administrative locality for the purposes of political mobilization. Perhaps for older generation of elites who moved from Uvs into Ulaanbaatar the concept could resonate with a certain sense of authentic common origin, but today such a homogenizing concept cannot be realistically applied to the demographic diversity of HA, especially when it comes to political and entrepreneurial elites whose links to the province are often indirect. Many leading “Uvs men” were not born in the province but are second generation of Uvs diaspora and claiming their links not only through paternal but maternal side is usual.
Thirdly, I want to explain the use of ‘informal’ in the title of this blog. In formal politics we get to witness political alliances through parties and other sub-groups that have open political affiliations, however informal associations that promote local identity, and what I call ‘locality’, have to preserve a façade of unity. I wanted to explore whether such unity does really exist within the Uvs HAs or if factions and alliances are prevalent? This issue was explored through the study of important public rituals, ceremonies and their funding. For instance many of my interlocutors including non-Uvs people continuously emphasized the peculiar unity and incredible network that the community has. Important ceremonial rituals such as lunar new year meetings, wrestling and horse racing are actively attended by the members of both major political parties. They raise funds for these activities together and appear unanimously for any Uvs related public appearance. However, underneath the performative unanimity there is a clear separation of power in accordance with political alliances. The creation of separate sub-associations called Gal, a wrestling or horse racing associations, often serves as separation of power and balance among the factions that exist within the board of the larger HA. The focus on wrestling and horse racing activities point to the performative field, thus symbolic power that the elite seek to divide and populate.
Finally, drawing on these insights, I want to emphasize that these kinds of informal organizations can be seen as cultural forms through which power is mobilized. If we explore them in detail, we can trace the way in which power functions at local levels. The prevailing discourse of nationalism, which extends further into micro or local-nationalism, is pervasive in local politics. This makes it hard for both the general public and the public elites alike to escape the politics of their ‘homeland’. It is my suggestion that denying, or refusing to engage in the social obligation of recognizing one’s homeland is almost completely unthinkable to most people, making this particular form of discourse function so well through these organisations.
A version of this material was presented in October, 2015, at the American Center for Mongolian Studies, Ulaanbaatar, and is due to be submitted for publication.
 The research team consisted of two researchers from Helvetas Swiss Interco-operation, Sarah Byrne and Jens Engeli, and three research assistants from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia, including, Dr. Bum-Ochir, I. Byambabaatar and myself.
 On the term “geo body” see Winichakul, Thongchai who writes about the emergence of Siam-centered modern Thai state and during which process small kingdoms and ethnic group ceased to exist to create a homogeneity of Thai identity. Winichakul, Thongchai, 1994, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo Body of a Nation, Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.
 Uvs Hun- or Uvs Man is a term introduced by a former governor of Uvs province E.Tsaschiher in an ambitious program titled “Uvs hun hugjliin hutuch zagvar” (Uvs man, a guide to model development), Internom, 2011
 B. Enkhzaya’s interview with D. Tsendsuren, a current governor of Uvs province “Увс хүн” сайн бүтээл, нэр нь буруу байсан юм”, www.polit.mn, 2014
 David Sneath, “Political mobilization and the construction of collective identity in Mongolia”, Central Asian Survey, 2010