By Marissa J. Smith
Since Julian’s post on the unfolding events around China’s cancellation of Mongolian-medium education, the current Mongolian president, Kh. Battulga, and his predecessor, Ts. Elbegdorj, have released statements.
As a brief update on the situation, Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, which continues to collect and publish videos from on the ground on its website, and The Diplomat are reporting in the last twenty-four hours that schools are empty, with students and parents apparently effectively boycotting the education system. The Diplomat reports that in Jirem/Tongliao, the administrative area where the policy was initially announced in June and one home to the largest population of Mongolians in China, “local Communist Party leaders have been visiting each family to try to get the students to return.”
Ts. Elbegdorj, president of Mongolia from 2009 to 2017 and of the same party as Kh. Battulga, the Democratic Party, made a very explicit statement of support to those protesting and “struggling against” (temtsekh, ᠲᠡᠮᠡᠴᠡᠬᠦ) the changes in China. His video was apparently made in cooperation with the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, and was released on their YouTube Channel, as well as on his official Facebook page, where he also posted in English, “We need to voice our support for Mongolians striving to preserve their mother tongue and scripture in China. The right to learn and use one’s mother tongue is an inalienable right for all. Upholding this right is a way for China to be a respectable and responsible power.”
Current Mongolian president Kh. Battulga made his remarks on the occasion of the new school year, which as in China, occurs on September 1. The video was broadcast by the Mongolian National Broadcaster (English language coverage below) and also covered by print media.
Though unlike Elbegdorj’s, Battugla’s comments did not explicitly express support for the protestors in China or make reference at all to events there, the video did include the recitation of a poem by a Mongolian from China. (Thank you to Christopher Atwood for drawing my attention to this tweet.)
Өвөр Монгол зохиолчийн бичсэн босоо монгол бичгийн тухай шүлгийг яриулна гэдэг яг энэ цаг үед дипломат сануулга pic.twitter.com/d2ERl3JEbo
— Energy Bat (@batjaj1) September 1, 2020
Battulga “taught the first lesson of the year” to a group of school children in a ger decorated with the traditional “standing script” (bosoo bichig, ᠪᠣᠱᠤᠭᠠ ᠢᠴᠢᠭ) emphasizing, as Elbegdorj also did, the connections between Mongolian language and Mongolian identity. The use of the term “standing script” is significant, and not the one always colloquially used in Mongolia to refer to this script, the teaching of which in Mongolian schools has actually declined significantly since the 1990s. The poem, and the verse recited by Battulga with all of the schoolchildren together, also used the term “bosoo” or “standing” prominently. The form of the Mongolian script is explicitly connected to the form of the human body itself, especially when it is being taught, when components of the script are described as body parts including the backbone, teeth, stomach, shins, and so on, and the use of the term “standing script” in this context evokes Elbegdorj’s much more explicit statements about the relationship between Mongolian language and Mongolian identity. (In the tweeted clip, the children also compare the Mongolian script to a “superpower” like that belonging to a Marvel Universe Avenger.)
While I would find it surprising if Mongolia’s government took official measures to protest the change in policy in China, I am surprised by both Elbegdorj and Battulga’s statements and definitely staying tuned!