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Ethnic Han Chinese Sentenced to Death in Mongol Killing that Sparked Protests, Crackdown

Paramilitary policemen (bottom) and policemen block the street during a protest in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, in this handout photo dated May 23, 2011.

A Chinese coal driver has received the death sentence for killing a Mongolian herder in a case that sparked the greatest unrest across Inner Mongolia in 20 years.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday that a court in the Chinese autonomous region found that driver Li Lindong killed the herder, known as Mergen, by hitting him with his truck and dragging him 145 meters to his death.

The court also sentenced another Han Chinese riding in the truck to life in prison for murder. Two other Chinese received three years in prison for obstructing justice.

Mergen was hit last month while protesting with other herders against coal miners working in the grasslands. His killing tapped long-simmering ethnic tensions in the resource-rich region, inspiring thousands of students to take to the streets of the regional capital, Xilinhot. Rights groups say China responded harshly to the protests, imposing martial law.

VOA’s Sarah Williams asked Sarah McDowall, the Asia-Pacific manager for the defense and security analysis group IHS Janes, about the tensions.

Why did the death of this herder cause such great upset in Mongolia?

“I think the event had such an impact primarily because it fed into preexisting historical, political, economic and social tensions in the region. And when this incident took place, there was nowhere for these ethnic Mongols to go to kind of express their grievances. After the protests began on the 10th of May, which is when the incident took place, a significant period of time passed, and there had been no kind of apology or public official acknowledgement of what had happened. So this was something that was very inflammatory for them and triggered this kind of escalation of unrest.”

What are some of the tensions between the Mongolians and the ethnic Han Chinese?

“I think you have to go back to the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800’s. The Qing Dynasty, which was Han Chinese dynasty, was never really able to “Sinofy” Inner Mongolia. So the problems really stem back hundreds of years. And then in 1947, the Chinese Communist Party declared Inner Mongolia as the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region and effectively part of China.

At that point, there were also problems pacifying the region. You know, 250,000 Mongols were executed at the time. There was large-scale destruction of Mongolian Buddhist temples as well. There are also kind of linguistic and cultural differences which aggravate the tensions in Inner Mongolia."

Inner Mongolians and Mongolian nationalists protest against a Chinese crackdown on protests in Mongolia's capital of Ulan Bator (AP).

"To look at it in the current day, it’s also important to look at the kind of socioeconomic issues at play. The region is actually very rich in minerals and natural resources and, to some extent, there has been relatively good economic growth there. But the problem has been the way in which the fruits of these economic reforms have been distributed among the population. There is a perception among ethnic Mongols that they have not benefitted from this economic growth.”

So they believe their traditional pastoral existence is being threatened by the Han Chinese?

“Yes, the region is actually very rich in natural resources and so naturally, this has attracted people from other parts of China to try and get their share of the wealth there.

There also has been an issue of ethnic tension stemming from mass Han Chinese migration into the region. As it currently stands, I think that ethnic Mongols themselves only comprise roughly 20 percent of the population in the Mongolian Autonomous Region. And so there are some concerns that their traditional cultures and values are being eroded by this wave of Han Chinese.”