“Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East” by Aubrey Menard

Mongols

Young Mongols is a book full of energy. Aubrey Menard has interviewed young Mongolian activists at work across different sectors of society; these she profiles together on the basis of a common commitment to make society more equal, more functional, more inclusive. Their participation in Mongolia’s social and political betterment is told with respect and enthusiasm, and most readers will find their passion irresistible.

The activists of Young Mongols are simply people who take a hands-on approach to a problem that concerns them. Sometimes they began with no obvious personal stake in an issue. One day, an “ordinary guy” named Jack walked past a man on the streets of Ulaanbaatar with a sign, “Stop human trafficking”. Having no idea that human trafficking even happened in Mongolia, he was shocked into action. Jack discovered that almost all anti-slavery work was being done by women. He thought that men should care as much, and started to organize men to help. On a grim note, the man with the sign, whose daughter was a victim of traffickers, has since been murdered, likely for his efforts at exposure.

Others have such a stake that their activism is a fight for their lives. Anaraa, a trans man, helped found Mongolia’s LGBT Centre. By the Centre’s data, most hate speech faced by queer Mongolians is driven by Christian and Mormon missions. Anaraa himself believes that “hatred of people with queer identities isn’t rooted in Mongolian culture”. In recent years, Anaraa has been seriously injured in an attack, with follow-up threats so grave—Menard, rightly, does not spare us the specifics—that he has sought asylum in the Netherlands. Although the LGBT Centre has run a programme to educate police around gay people, discrimination and hate crimes, Anaraa has not had real assistance and doesn’t feel safe to remain at home. I hope Menard makes use of social media to update us on Anaraa, at time of writing stuck in a refugee camp.

Young Mongols is a profoundly hopeful book.

Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East, Aubrey Menard (Penguin Random House SEA, July 2020)
Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East, Aubrey Menard (Penguin Random House SEA, July 2020)

Young Mongols serves as an overview of contemporary Mongolia. For me, it has explored a riddle or two. Perhaps you have read travel accounts or reports of archaeological digs in Mongolia, and seen that women aren’t allowed on sacred mountains. You may know from such popular fare as Jack Weatherford’s Secret History of the Mongol Queens that premodern Mongols didn’t seem so patriarchal. Menard sheds light on this point in a chapter on feminism. Sacred mountains are political these days, tangled up with business interests, and yes, Mongolian feminists are active against the mountain ban. Women parliamentarians can’t be in “the key decision-making chamber of the Ministry of Defence” because it houses the wartime spirit banner. Yet, as Menard notes, the first mention of such a spirit banner in Mongolian letters occurs in the 13th-century Secret History of the Mongols, when Chinggis (Genghis) Khan’s mother Hoelun brandishes the one that belonged to her dead husband. A set of journalistic studies can’t explain everything about Mongolian modernity, but Menard’s interviews provide perspectives beyond and behind the kind of anecdotal knowledge you pick up in newspapers.

Another subject I have wondered about, a big subject in Mongolia, is mining. As an Australian, I have queasily watched the names of Australian mining companies heavily involved in Mongolia, but it has been hard to get an overview on a matter far outside my competence. Menard’s background is resource sector governance, so she is an excellent guide as she interviews sustainability, environmental and anti-corruption activists. Mongolia is a proud democracy, but as Menard warns, resource-rich countries are in special danger of inequitable returns and equality gaps.

As for the “democracy” of the title, Menards attends to questions of integrity in public life. It indeed feels like the “Wild, Wild East”, ripe for exploitation, when you read about the IBEX Group.

 

Back in 1993, Mongolia’s vice premier signed a contract with the IBEX Group, a mysterious American corporation. The 99-year contract gave the IBEX Group a monopoly over Mongolia’s mineral resources, telecommunications, tourism, and cashmere sectors… The contract would have essentially put an end to Mongolia’s short-lived democracy, replacing Soviet authoritarianism with corporate colonialism. Luckily for Mongolia, two dissident politicians leaked the deal to the media… So, who was the IBEX Group? Some twenty-six years later, neither the American nor the Mongolian public know.

 

The state of journalism makes another chapter in Menard’s book, as do education—a focus on disabled people’s access—labor rights and Ulaanbaatar’s notorious pollution. On each topic, Menard has successes to record: innovations, inventions; extension of opportunity, awareness campaigns that have led to change; even a better result than the world average in rescue of trafficked people.

 

Young Mongols is a great way to get to know contemporary Mongolia. Whether your own passion is for standards in journalism, new technologies as applied to problems in urban planning, or outreach to neglected communities, you will find a cause here that connects with issues closer to home. Neither remote nor frozen in the century of Chinggis Khan, Mongolia’s struggles for human rights and a truly democratic society join with ours, wherever we live.

The average age in Mongolia is 27½, compared to 37 in China and 38 in America. If, like me, your only hope for a human future on Planet Earth lies in young people, their political choices and their initiatives for change all over the world, you will find Young Mongols a profoundly hopeful book.


Bryn Hammond is a writer living in Australia. She has out the fiction titles Against Walls and Imaginary Kings (Amgalant series on the Mongols) and the non-fiction Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.