Friday, April 17, 2009

I'll sleep when I'm jailed

Having spent the night planning in borrowed university classrooms, they would emerge in small groups into the cold Mongolian dawn. Their footsteps often were the first to touch the newly-fallen snow. Students, professors and trade unionists, each separately planning, each unaware of the other groups activities, but each very aware that any day may be the last for the democratic movement in Mongolia.

"Maybe we won't meet tomorrow," they would say to each other in parting. Half joking that at least in jail, they would get more sleep.
But that was 1989.

Twenty years have passed and now, Nara, who took the train back from studying for her PhD in Moscow to join the fledgling democracy movement, is joined by three junior-high school students to guide us on a hotspot tour of the democratic movement in Ulan Baatar. The quiet dawn of democracy Nara describes has been replaced by traffic. Surging, weaving, beeping traffic. A byprodoct of the success of the democracy movement.

We stop at a statue. Standing in front of the curved facade of the physics building, it looks like it might be Stalin on the granite plinth but for the Mongolian face. "It is Choibalsan," Nara says, "Mongolian Stalin."

Yessouche takes the lead. A compact little man in a seventh-grader's body, he holds forth on the misdeeds of Choibalsan now and then poking at his picture on the poster held up spokesmodel style by his classmates, Puujee and Maralmaa. We wait for the translation and nod our heads when it comes. Choibalsan was a bad man.

"He killed my grandfather," Nara adds at last, her sorrow mixing with a certain degree of pride.
For all his crimes, his statue must suffer the punishment of being painted pink.
The tour continues and we weave our way through the flow of traffic to another corner and another statue and what emerges to me is a pattern. In the see-saw political struggle for parliamentary and presidential power between the Democratic party and the Communists, a sort of monumental chess game has evolved with Ulan Baatar as the board. With the Democrats in power, statues from the Soviet era of Lenin, Stalin and their Mongolian abettors, were taken down or moved, replaced with Democratic heroes. Rinchin, jailed under the Communists for nationalist writings in the traditional Mongolian script, now stands in bronze where Stalin (yes, they had a statue of him) used to be. The building in back of him is now the National Library.
But across the street from Rinchin's statue, is another bronze, this time a Communist, erected recently by the Communist party. We don't stop to talk in front of this statue.

"I don't like this," she says, nodding to the statue.

At last we come to a statue of what looks like a professor. Glasses on his intelligent face and a soft leather briefcase hanging from his right hand, the man known as Zurig gazes across Sumbaatar Square at the gleaming facade of Mongolia's parliamentary buildng. He is an icon of democracy in Mongolia and should have been the first democratically elected president of this country.

But in a crime that remains unsolved, Zurig was murdered in his apartment.
For all the peace, love and understanding that marked the transition of the is country from a communist dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, he is a constant reminder that politics and power is big stuff and people in power don't often go away without a fight.

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