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Interview with Elbegdorj Tsakhia
First democratic Prime Minister of Mongolia
One Year Toward Freedom - Part Two
This is part 2 of an interview series with Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the first democratic Prime Minister of Mongolia. We feel it is a good time, during the "one year in Iraq" anniversary, to remind us all about the progress of freedom, be it in Iraq or in Mongolia. We're fascinated by the story, but find the real fascination is how freedom develops over time and the varying stages it seems to take everywhere. People seem to accept a lot of terrible things in life until that moment when it dawns on them that they just won't stand for it any longer. Last summer we met a Cuban dissident who explained you can take things from the people, you can torture them and even kill some of them, but there comes a time when a change of consciousness or a realization finally takes hold of them. From then on, the people will rise up to demand their freedom. Yes, there are backslides and mistakes to be made and corrected. In our last segment, we said that freedom doesn't happen in a flash. The realization may, but the implementation of freedom takes time. We should be patient with Iraq and Mongolia. We should encourage and support them, but know that freedom doesn't come in a package. The people have to take up the cause.
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Helen: How long were you in the Soviet Union?
EB: Five years, majoring in Military Journalism. During that 5 years I tried to publish a student newspaper, but we only published one issue. At that time it was a big deal and they called us and asked us why we were doing that. In those days it was still illegal to publish a newspaper that was not approved of by the government. We told them that is was sort of a journalistic academic assignment and we tried to show to our professors how capable we were since we were not only writing articles, we were publishing them too. However, they closed us down and told us that if we do it again we will be jailed or at the very least be expelled from school. All we wanted to do was show our initiative.
Helen: Was it at this point that you decided you were not happy with Communism?
EB: Not quite yet. It was a small shadow, a small stage, but not complete disillusionment. The most important thing during my disappointment was the soft power influence by America and other western powers. Hard power means military, but soft power means freedom and intangible powers such as influence. The greatest of these was the Voice of America, another was Radio Free Europe As we listened to these we realized that they were telling more truths than the news we were given by the media in the Soviet Union.
Peter: As a student in journalism, were you conscious of the quality of the official media? What was the feeling among the other students about the quality of the government media, the official media?
EB: We thought the newspapers were good and the journalists were of the highest professional quality, but I didn't like the excessive Marxism and Leninist ideology. They taught us that when we write any article we should get some message from either Marx or Lenin, even Engels to prove our argument. Do you know that Lenin actually wrote 110 volumes! Commentaries, letters, everything. Plus we were assigned to read almost all of them.
Peter: Their writings were revered just as our Bible is revered by us.
EB: Yes, like the Bible.
Peter: So Marxism and Leninism were the religion, and their writings were the holy books.
EB: Yes. Then after my graduation I went to work with the Army newspaper as a journalist back in Mongolia. I focused on some critical issues in Army Life. I wrote some big articles about wrong doings in the Army and their achievements.
Peter: Was that taking a risk?
EB: Not really, because it was also supported by doctrine. For at that time in Communism they actually encouraged a kind of self criticism, but there was a limit. But also we started having talks in our kitchens, which we called "kitchen talk." This is where we criticized our leadership and we all felt there was something wrong, but we didn't know exactly what was wrong, nor how to fix it. On thing that Gorbachev gave to the people is that he tried to put make-up on the Communist face. He said he was going to improve Communism and society. Well, he tried for five years, but instead of improving, Communism decayed. Too many people felt it and from that they got the notion that it's impossible to improve the system; there is something wrong with it. Instead of improving it, we needed a complete change. It was one of the turning points in my life. I continued to talk to my friends at home, in their homes... but not in public places.
Then, in late November of 1989, there was a call for a big Youth conference in Mongolia and I was selected to be one of the delegates. Some of my friends were also chosen as delegates. Before this conference I was also a member of the organizers of the conference. One night we talked about what the conference should accomplish. At one gathering of about 100 of us, where we were very critical of the leadership, we decided that we should ask that they support Peristroika and Glasnost more. I suggested that we needed to exchange ideas all over the country, like we were in our small meetings. I even suggested we publish some type of newspaper for this free exchange of ideas. After a day or so my friends called and said it's a very interesting idea and they were talking about it more and more. So the more we talked about it we decided that a newspaper alone was not enough, but we also had to establish some type of non-governmental organization. We needed an organized movement in Mongolia to support Peristroika. We finally decided to use this conference where more than 1,000 delegates from all around the country would attend to announce our idea for a newspaper and a movement. If we used this conference forum we just might succeed. It seemed a one-time chance to succeed, for if we didn't succeed we might be captured and placed in jail or maybe even killed. So this was a very serious issue and decision.
At the conference were not only delegates from all over the county and various youth organizations., but also members of the Politburo. It was a highly publicized event. My friends decided I should be the one to announce our plan at the conference since I was a journalist and in the Military.
So, on the first day of the conference I asked the moderator for some time to speak. However, he didn't grant my request and we were running out of time. We did have a kind of KGB [secret police] system in our country and it worked very well. I think they knew what we were planning and tried to block it. So my friends decided they would write my name on a small piece of paper and give it to the moderator and demand that I get a chance to speak. I was in the first row and many, many papers arrived up front with my name. Yet, still he wouldn't let me speak.
So I collected more of the papers and used the excuse of giving the papers to the moderator to approach and get on the stage. Then I said, "Oh, while I'm here, I'd like to use my time (which was 5 minutes) to make an announcement." I publicly asked the moderator to speak. The crowd was clapping and shouting for me to speak, yet the moderator was outraged. He told me to sit down and was yelling at me.
Yet, I stood my ground and spoke. I merely told them that as young people we wanted to establish a non-governmental organization in order to support Peristroika and support our party.
Peter: What is Peristroika exactly? Self Improvement?
EB: Yes, sort of self improvement. And Glasnost was openness. We were actually hiding our true purpose which was to change the whole system. So I asked anyone who was interested to stay after the conference and we'll all talk and begin to set it up. After this conference we got more than 100 out of the 1,000 delegates. We met in one room and chose 13 members to head the organization. I was one of them. Now in Mongolia we're called the 13 First Democrats. We also realized the second stage of our movement must now be announced to the whole country.
Helen: This is what started you on the road to becoming a politician.
EB: Yes. We also decided it was time to organize our first demonstration. We called to the countryside and the cities that we should organize at the same time. We would use this to tell Mongolia about it's first non-governmental organization which we called the Mongolian Democratic Union.
Helen: How old were the people in this organization?
EB: I was 26 years old. The age group was 20 to 30 at first. We organized our demonstration on December 10, 1989. We choose December 10 because it's International Human Rights Day. It looked like we were linked to them, or used that day to exercise our Human Rights. We also announced our demands for the leadership of our country. There were 14 demands. They were to allow a multi party system, democratic elections, parliamentary type of government, privatization of socialists property, freedom of press, freedom of religion; all the usual things. This was very unexpected by the government. It really came out of the blue to them. We also demanded that they give us an answer or explanation of how they were going to implement these things. We wanted communication on a weekly basis. If they didn't give us the answers in one week we were going to begin the next stage of our fight.
Helen: What was the next stage?
EB: We announced that we would organize public meetings every week and announce what answers we got, or didn't get. In the first meeting we got 1,000 people; in the second meeting we got 5,000 people; in the third meeting we got 10,000 people and, in the fourth meeting, we got 100,000 people! In Mongolia, a country with the population only about 3 million people, that's a lot of people to show up. Our supporters popped up everywhere, it was like mushrooms popping up after the rain. And it was all members and ages of society that popped up. They also organized the MDU of their individual district or city. It was spreading fast.
My conclusion is that dictators can hold their country for along time, as it was 70 years in Mongolia, but if people get the notion or consciousness of a different, free way of life, people will mobilize in a day, a week or in just one month, as with us. This also happened within Eastern Europe.
It happens fast, because our first demonstration was December 10, 1989 and the Politburo resigned in March 9, 1990. That was about 3 months from beginning to the end of dictatorship.
Helen and Peter: That's truly amazing!
continue with part 3 of the interview series
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© Copyright Peter and Helen Evans, 2004. All rights reserved.