May 29, 2011 / 12:24 PM / in 7 years

UPDATE 3-China tightens grip on Inner Mongolia before protest

* Protest planned in the capital of Hohhot on Monday

* Major square in Hohhot under heavy security

* Top party chief meets students (Adds details about reporter’s detention, quote)

By Ben Blanchard

HOHHOT, May 29 (Reuters) - Security forces sealed off parts of the capital of China’s vast northern region of Inner Mongolia on Sunday to prevent residents from staging a planned protest after the hit-and-run death of a herder.

Ethnic Mongolians have been protesting for six days over the death this month of a Mongolian herder, Mergen, after being struck by a coal truck. The government announced the arrest of two Han Chinese for homicide, but that failed to stem the anger.

Hundreds of paramilitary policemen and police in riot gear, armed with shields, batons and helmets, patrolled Hohhot’s Xinhua Square, next to the Inner Mongolia radio and television station, after calls spread online for a protest on Monday.

Police also surrounded Ruyi Square, in front of the local government building, but elsewhere life went on as usual.

Chinese authorities sealed off parts of the northern region of Inner Mongolia, a resource-rich region strategically located on the borders of Russia and Mongolia, on Friday in what residents described as martial law.

In a rare sign of defiance, hundreds of China’s Mongolians, who make up less than 20 percent of the roughly 24 million population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, have taken to the streets in other parts of the province.

Resentment against Han Chinese runs deep.

Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a 10th of China’s land mass, is supposed to offer a high degree of self-rule, but Mongolians say the Han Chinese majority run the show and have been the main beneficiaries of economic development.

China’s Mongolians rarely take to the streets, unlike Tibetans or Xinjiang’s Uighurs, making the latest protests highly unusual.

The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre said Mongolians were planning further protests over the next few days, including in Hohhot, less than an hour’s flight from Beijing.

HEIGHTENED SECURITY

Some schools in Hohhot said authorities had stepped up security.

“The school has told us to keep an eye for any illegal gathering these days as June 4 is coming,” one man in a high school in Hohhot told Reuters, referring to the armed crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, in Beijing.

“Security is tight, there are many policemen in the streets,” he added. He declined to give his name.

A worker at a university in Hohhot said three entrances had been sealed off and there was a heavy police presence. He declined to comment on the reason. Telephone calls to the Hohhot government and its propaganda department went unanswered.

Police in Hohhot later detained a Reuters reporter and questioned him on why he had come to the city.

A government official then told another Reuters reporter that foreign journalists needed to apply three days in advance if they wished to report in the city. “Everything is stable in Hohhot, it is very safe here,” said the official.

In the ruling party’s first response to the protests, Inner Mongolia’s Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua told students and teachers on Friday he was representing the government to seek their views on the situation. He said “public anger has been immense”, state media reported.

“Please be assured, teachers and students, that the suspects ... will be punished severely and quickly, so that the ... rights of victims and their families can be resolutely safeguarded,” the Inner Mongolian Daily cited Hu as saying.

But Hu’s reassurances are unlikely to bring lasting calm, said Enghebatu Togochog of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre.

“The conflict between the Chinese authorities’ attempts to exploit the natural resources and the disrespect of the Mongolians’ way of life will not be easily resolved, unless the Chinese government changes its policy,” he said. (Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Huang Yan, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee,; Editing by Nick Macfie and Elizabeth Piper)

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