Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

August 2008

John Vincent Bellezza

Special Two Year Anniversary Issue (2006–2008)

Focus on Mongolia!
Recently, the flight of the khyung, or should I say airplane, has taken me far and wide. From the middle of June until early August I had the good fortune of visiting many parts of Mongolia. Mongolia, a realm of broad steppes, snow mountains and harsh deserts, occupies the eastern portion of Central Asia. This stern and storied land has been at the crossroads of Eurasia for four millennia. In the Bronze Age, Europoids and Mongoloids jostled against one another, creating an extremely diverse cultural-scape in Mongolia. Gradually the Mongolian ethnicity formed out of various Iron Age cultures, the most important among them being the Huns and Xianbei. As a rule, the Mongolians are an honest, helpful and hospitable people. They have a long and noble history, something in which they rightfully take much pride. Fond of horseracing, wrestling, archery, and singing, the Mongolian people hold their ancient ways dear while vigorously embracing the charms of the modern world.

Mongolia, Tibet’s Northern Neighbor
Mongolia, a country roughly the size of the Tibetan plateau, is situated directly north of Tibetan cultural regions. Around Koko Nor (mTsho sngon) and other regions of Amdo (such as Rekong and Hainan) these two great peoples have intermingled for centuries. Like the fingers of both hands joined together, Tibetans and Mongolians have pushed north or extended south, living in close geographic association with one another. Mongolian place names reach south of the Tangula range into the Nagchu and Damshung regions. The interwoven cultural tapestry of northern Tibet and southern Mongolia is the result of an extremely rich and long historical legacy. The Tangut kingdom and the rise of the Mongols under Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) are but later signposts on this long road of accommodation, conquest and assimilation. Known as Hor, Gyaser (rGya ser) or Sokyul (Sog yul) to the Tibetans, Mongolia occupies an important place in Tibetan geographic and historical literature.

Mongolian Geography and History in a Few Sentences
The sovereign nation of Mongolia (1,564,000 m²) occupies around one half of Mongolian cultural lands. Areas that fall outside the state of Mongolia include Tuva, Buryatia and Kalmykia in Russia and Inner Mongolia in the People’s Republic of China. While there is not currently a strong pan-national movement, Mongolians being an ancient people have a clearly defined cultural identity. Greater cultural Mongolia forms one of the largest ethnic territories on the globe.

Mongolia with only around 3,000,000 inhabitants is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Interestingly, it also has one of the highest average elevations. Much of the country is situated between 1000 m and 2000 m, with none of it falling below 500 m. Despite its lofty average elevation, Mongolia’s highest mountain, Tavan Bogd, is only 4374 m in height (the main mountain ranges are the Altai, Khangai and Khyangan). The rivers of Mongolia drain into the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and internally into continental basins. In the far north there are taiga forests, ecologically more akin to Siberia than the Central Asian steppes. Conversely, the Gobi desert circumscribes the southern third of the country.

After 70 years of Soviet domination, Mongolia emerged as a parliamentary democracy in the early 1990s. Its current constitution was adopted on February 12, 1992. In the 18th and 19th centuries Mongolia came under Manchu domination. The period of Eurasian supremacy under the Mongol Khaans during the 13th and 14th centuries ended with a lengthy civil war (1400-1454). From this period Mongolia remained relatively weak and divided. The ruthless occupation of Mongolia by the Soviets led to the destruction of most of its traditional institutions. Under the Communist zealot Choibalsan, thousands of monks and lamas were killed and the monasteries razed and shut down in the period from 1929 to 1939. On a positive note, Soviet domination once and for all halted Chinese designs on so-called Outer Mongolia, paving the way to an independent nation. Also, with the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet in 1944, the literacy rate reached 97% in the ensuing decades. Under Manchu rule less than 10% of Mongolians could read and write in their own language.

The Contemporary Political and Economic Scene in Mongolia
The systematic dismantling of Mongolian culture and the formation of a Communist state has had a lasting influence on the country. The Mongolians are in the process of rediscovering themselves, a challenging and, at times, traumatic experience. The legacy of seven decades of Communism is immeasurably complicated by the current state of geopolitical affairs. Mongolia is the object of a tug-of-war between Russia, China and the West. A contest rages, one that will decide which power will hold sway in this strategically important corner of the Eurasian hinterland. Essentially this is a continuation of the 19th century Great Game, and it is every bit as fascinating and earnest. This 21st century version of the Great Game is of course being primarily played out using economic tools. The big prize is Mongolia’s huge mineral wealth (it possesses gold, rare earth metals and many other sought after commodities). Thus far, the government has done a good job at maintaining cordial relations with all the players, skillfully balancing its national interests with the need to win over new friends. Unfortunately, recent internal political difficulties are compromising Mongolia’s ability to effectively play its part in the new Great Game.

As in other resource rich developing countries, the trajectory of Mongolia cannot be characterized as a smooth transition to a bright new future. Large disparities in income levels have appeared, and all that new money afloat has fueled a severe rate of inflation, which is eating into the purchasing power of the ordinary citizen. Around 70% of all Mongolians still depend on herding for their livelihood (they rear the ‘five animals with snouts’: horse, cow/yak, sheep, goat, and camel), and to a greater or lesser extent, they are being excluded from many of the economic benefits of the big boom. In order to get a piece of the action Mongolians are swarming to the capital city Ullaan Baatar, which now has 40% of the country’s entire population. This explosive growth is causing severe congestion and sky rocketing real estate prices. The current exodus to Ullaan Baatar is unsustainable in the long run, but only a concerted effort to develop the provinces can stem it. However, there is little sign that this is about to happen. In most provincial capitals what little new construction there is proceeds at a languid pace, while the old Soviet era infrastructure continues to deteriorate. It must be noted that the development of a sprawling country with a minuscule population can never be an easy task. The logistical challenges posed by the geography and climate are of an extremely tall order. Moreover, Mongolia is still relatively poor (although its cost of living is substantially higher than China’s or India’s) and it will require many years and good planning to effectively integrate the countryside into the new economy.

If the great sin of the Soviet system was its grinding disregard for basic human rights, the great sin of the contemporary neoliberal economic model is its turning of a blind eye to social inequalities. The creation of economic winners and losers does little to cement the Mongolian polity; rather it creates social tensions of various kinds. The disintegration of social values is of particular concern in such a small nation, where only a unified front can hope to dissuade all too eager global neighbors both near and far. The problems I allude to are not merely of a psychosocial dimension but affect the very fabric of the nation. The live birth rate is now only around 2.4% per annum, down from well over 3% during the time of the Mongolian People’s Republic. This demographic decline will potentially have catastrophic implications for Mongolia. As part of its drive to develop and modernize, government planners should institute policies to encourage a birth rate of around 2.8%, in order that the population of the country will expand to over 4,000,000 in the next 30 years. Mongolia needs all the demographic heft it can get, not least of all to pull its weight in dealings with much larger countries to the north and south. On the negative side, an increase in population would put more stress on the fragile ecosystems of the country. One possible solution is to build up the farming industry where geographically appropriate. It is generally agreed that Mongolia has a much greater potential to grow grain than it currently realizes.

More than 125,000 Mongolian now live outside the country, and the number is steadily rising. Many of these are young people, the best and the brightest of the society. It is crucial that the government adopt policies to lure these expatriates back. At such a critical juncture in the history of Mongolia, it needs every bit of indigenous expertise and talent it can muster.

Deforestation, desertification and overgrazing are longstanding environmental problems in Mongolia. More recently, mining and the attendant pollution of water resources is a cause for concern. The Gobi desert and desert steppe have been spreading in Mongolia for millennia. In the last 25 years this trend seems to have gained momentum, with an increased frequency in the drought cycle. The wholesale cutting of the steppe forests only fuels the problem. Trees are being extracted from the most inappropriate habitats, turning forestlands into grasslands and grasslands into wastelands. While virtually all Mongolians are aware of the seriousness of deforestation in their country, effective measures to preserve the woodlands and their amazing biological diversity are yet to be put in place. Especially devastating winters in the last decade have also significantly added to the pressures that the nomads are facing. Bad winters on top of mounting environmental degradation are having a profound impact on Mongolia, adding to the volatile social mix.
A Political Road Ahead for Mongolia?
The good news is that the economic and environmental problems touched upon above are manageable with the right kind of political leadership. Mongolia is not India or China with their gigantic and restive populations. Wealth derived from extraction industries such as uranium mining should be seen as a transitional stage in Mongolia’s economic development. The capital thus generated must in large measure be plowed directly back into economic circulation. The revitalization of the nation’s educational and health facilities is of paramount importance. By aggressively investing in its people, Mongolia can climb the value added chain and develop technologies and products that will allow it to vigorously compete in the international marketplace. For instance, with its dry continental climate, Mongolia is nicely positioned for certain high tech manufacturing capabilities.

The continued balkanization of Mongolian society with a few getting rich and the rest struggling to maintain must be halted. If it is to thrive, a thinly populated country in such a vulnerable corner of the world cannot afford to be divided in such a manner.

In order to stimulate a lively debate, I shall propose a radical new system of parliamentary representation inspired by banners, the administrative and geographic units of old Mongolia. Such a political reform would require the rewriting of the Mongolian constitution. As it stands now there is direct suffrage by secret ballot in which all citizens over 18 years of age may participate (voting is not mandatory). There are 26 national constituencies each of which returns 2 to 4 members to the parliament (which consists of a single chamber with 76 members). The president, also elected by secret ballot, is the head of state. Presidential candidates are nominated by political parties who have members serving in parliament.

On the face of things this sounds like a perfectly reasonable and modern system of political franchise. Nevertheless, as civil disturbances in June show, Mongolian politics is confronting its worst crises since the establishment of democracy. Power politics based on the new economic realities are riding roughshod over the needs of the majority of the electorate. Increasingly, politics in Mongolia is the provenance of the few with the resources to mobilize the mass media machine and the logistical apparatus needed to win elections. Clearly, the electorate is increasingly dissatisfied with the political arrangement and innovative solutions are called for.
Given that politics is increasingly dominated by powerful economic blocks in Mongolia, the prudence of the current electoral system must be called into question. As an alternative to it, I propose a system of appointments that brings each and every Mongolian into the political equation regardless of their economic status or political leanings. Like the calling up of warriors of yore, every individual in an encampment, district (soum) and province (aimaq) would be accounted for in such a system.

Each nomad family in an encampment would choose an ‘elder’ by open ballot. These respected family members would then form a committee that elects an encampment representative. The representatives from various contiguous encampments would form a confederated body, which in turn, elects the representatives for its portion of the soum. These local congresses or banners on the soum level shall appoint the leaders to the provincial assembly. Members of the provincial assemblies would then choose representatives among themselves to constitute the national assembly or great khural. In urban areas, as a substitute to the encampments, wards could be formed from each resident family, and these would be responsible for electing sub-district and district representatives.

In short, I envision a system of full representation based on ever larger constituent bodies of delegates who themselves form the Mongolian national parliament. This is not democracy as it is commonly conceived but it has the benefit of marshalling the widest possible cross-section of the population into the political discourse. This would act as a remedy against the domination of special interest groups as well as an antidote to voter disinterest and alienation. Mongolia is a small enough nation where such a political system might be logistically feasible. On the negative side, this system of tiered open appointments could adversely affect individual freedoms by binding people to their families and regions.

Historically speaking, Mongolians are familiar with a system whereby people on the local and regional levels participate in constituent political bodies of ever greater magnitude, culminating in the great khaan or head leader. The president of Mongolia could be directly appointed by the national parliament, or parliament could field a set number of candidates who would then be put forward in a national plebiscite.
The further development of my proposal and a study of its feasibility requires the input of Mongolianists together with constitutional experts. Perhaps it is dead in the water anyway? Why would those who are benefiting from the current plutocracy entertain any change to the political system? This holds true not only for Mongolia but for many other countries as well.
In September’s Flight of the Khyung, we will look at the religious marketplace and the Buddhist revival in Mongolia. I will also report on the state of archaeology in that country. And this next newsletter will regale readers with some of my adventures in the land north of Tibet. Riding camels and reindeer, I can assure that there will be some surprises and novel approaches.

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