Sunday, April 26, 2009

Complain and Ye Shall Receive

This weekend I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stretch of the Selbe river between the US Embassy and Sky Center was cleaned up. All the trash was collected in piles and burned, and even the shrub brush was cleared. There was still a lot of plastic in the water, but overall the river was relatively clean. I am sorry I missed the actual cleaning, because I would have liked to have seen how many people it involved. Needless to say, it was a victory for the "nature"-lovers among us city-dwellers. Many thanks to whatever city officials or concerned citizens group orchestrated the clean-up effort.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Re-evaluating Chinggis Khaan

Dr. Rossabi gave his lecture yesterday evening entitled: Recent Re-Evaluations of Chinggis Khaan and Khubilai Khan. Before the lecture the School of Foreign Service at the National University of Mongolia conferred on him the title of "Honary Doctor" and presented him with a doctoral robe, medal, and diploma. It was a well attended event with more than 60 people.

If anyone expected Dr. Rossabi to pull punches during his lecture out of deference to the occasion, they were proven wrong. He gave a rather candid reassessment of his book Khubilai Khan and the recent deification and "vulgarization," as he put it, of the popular image of Chinggis Khaan. It was a brave position to take given the politics involved, but he expressed his concern about exalting the positives of the Mongol Empire and attempting to conceal the negatives of the Mongol conquests. Noting that, of course, this is a response in some respect to a long history in the West of portraying the Mongols unfairly, still he insisted that honest and factual examinations of history are of paramount importance in scholarly research. The facts indicate that there were positives and negatives associated with the Mongol conquests of Eurasia.

It was not an easy argument to make, especially in Mongolia. It made me think of someone standing in front of a group of Americans and suggesting that the way forward in truly understanding American history is accepting, even embracing, the uncomfortable facts about slavery. For many people that would be tantamount to heresy, and in Mongolia suggesting that Chinggis Khaan was a great leader but he was also a ruthless and brutal leader can be very dangerous, indeed. I think Dr. Rossabi was making a very trenchant observation about the need for all people to embrace both the positives and negatives of their history in order to give lasting resilience and credibility to the image that is presented to the rest of the world. Americans who ignore the legacy of slavery risk being branded hypocrites on issues of human rights, and Mongolians who ignore the brutality of the Mongol conquests risk having people not believe the factual positives of Mongol rule.

Dr. Rossabi also added that in re-evaluating Mongolian history, he is somewhat troubled by the fact that other great Mongolians are often neglected in the national consciousness. Mongolian currency, for example, has images of Chinggis Khaan and Sukhbaatar, but not of Natsagdorj, Zanabazar, or others. But, at the same time, he said it was understandable because Chinggis Khaan and Sukhbaatar are Mongolia's great generals, and other countries also find it hard to give space to leaders of the arts and sciences. Hero worship of military leaders is a common phenomenon around the world. I remember the first time I saw a German 5 Mark bill and it had a portrait of Carl Friedrich Gauss. I was impressed to see a mathematician receiving such an honor. But, maybe Germany is one place generals are best left unremembered. In the rest of the world we have a tendency to measure greatness in terms of conquest of the physical environment as opposed to the human mind.

Overall the lecture was enjoyable, most especially for Dr. Rossabi's candid thoughts. He certainly elicited numerous questions at the end of the lecture which poured into the reception afterwards. Congratulations to you Dr. Rossabi for your award and thank you for an informative lecture.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dr. Morris Rossabi to Give Lecture

Dr. Morris Rossabi of City University of New York and author of numerous books on Khubilai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty will be giving a lecture entitled "Recent Re-evaluations of Chinggis Khan and Khubilai Khan" at the ACMS Speaker Series this week April 23rd, 2009 at 5pm. The National University will also confer an honorary doctorate on Dr. Rossabi before the lecture for his contributions to the understanding of Mongolian history. The lecture is open to the public, and will take place in Room 305 of National University of Mongolia Building No. 5. Hope to see you there.

National Olympic Committee

One of the perks of working for the American Center for Mongolian Studies is sometimes I get asked to participate in interesting events outside my area of expertise. This morning the National Olympic Committee asked me to present an award to Dr. Zagdsuren, the president of the committee, on behalf of the American Biographical Institute. This year the institute named Dr. Zagdsuren "Man of the Year in Medicine and Health" for his contributions to Mongolian and international sport training. I was asked to present the award as a ranking representative of the American community in Mongolia. It certainly was an honor to be asked to do it, but the best part was after the ceremony when I received a personal tour of the Mongolian Olympic History Museum, which is housed in the National Olympic Committee building.

I am a huge fan of museums, so having an opportunity to see some of the memorabilia associated with Mongolia's numerous trips to the Olympics was, to say the least, fun. The museum has display cases for each Olympics starting with 1964 in Tokyo, Japan, as well as several Asian Games. Each case has numerous medals, placards, commendations, and pictures. There is also sporting equipment presumably used by Mongolian athletes in the games and during training.

The most enjoyable and enlightening part of the tour was when we got to the 1980 Olympics display, and I somewhat innocently commented on the fact that the US boycotted the Olympics that year. I was only 3 years old at the time, so it was more of a question about history than a comment about personal recollections. Then we moved to 1984, and, of course, the Soviet Union and Mongolia boycotted those Olympics, so there was no real display to speak of. We had a laugh about this, and I think it was partly due to the fact that the world has changed so much. It is almost comical to look back now and wonder what all that boycotting was about. Sure, it was serious stuff then, but for me it is funny to think that the place I call home today was once considered by my parents and grandparents an enemy not even worth playing sports with.

Today Mongolia's Olympic team is a source of immeasurable national pride, having earned 2 silvers and 2 golds in Beijing. I was told by the National Olympic Committee representative that after the award ceremony there was to be another press conference for the handing over ceremony of the first official invitation for a Mongolian athlete to participate in the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. The invitation is for cross-country skiing. Mongolia has yet to win a medal in the Winter Olympics, but with the likes of Dr. Zadgsuren overseeing the team, maybe 2010 will be Mongolia's year.

Mongolian News

Sometime last year I noticed on my walk to work that the sign on the Mongol News building, which I gather from other signs houses the offices of several daily newspapers, was slightly askew. At the time I thought it a nice bit of irony. Months later it is still the same, or even possibly more askew. This weekend I finally got around to taking a picture of it. Is it an accident or subconscious self-criticism? Whatever the answer, I like that it is only the "news" part that is helter-skelter.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ethics Review for Medical Research

It was brought to my attention yesterday that it is becoming increasingly difficult for international researchers to conduct medical or health research in Mongolia due to regulations introduced by the Ministry of Health which pulls the ethical review process for international projects away from the medical universities and hospitals, as it is handled for local researchers, and brings it within the purview of the ministry itself. I wonder if there are other researchers out there who have experienced difficultly in receiving the necessary permissions to conduct medical or health research in Mongolia, and whether this difficulty has been viewed as a necessary and understandable process or quite the opposite?

I am thinking here of international researchers who have received clearance from ethical review boards at reputable international universities or medical institutions, so that one might expect that the review process in Mongolia would mostly constitute an examination of the ethical practicality of conducting the research in the Mongolian context as opposed to a from scratch review of the entire proposal adding time and bureaucratic hurdles to the entire process. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this sort of approach, but at least for my money I am inclined to take Harvard Medical School's word for it that a proposed project is ethically sound, and spend the time saved ensuring that projects are executed in a manner befitting the context.

I am curious if the ministry's approach is the from scratch approach and whether it is effective. Or, is it something altogether different? Let me know if you have stories to share.

Garbage in Ulaanbaatar

I recently saw in a news item that the mayor of Ulaanbaatar has decided to get tough on the garbage problem in the city. His solution struck me as a bit curious. He wants to recruit private business in the effort to clean up the streets, presumably by better enforcing or encouraging responsible disposal of trash. This may be a fair solution to one aspect of the trash problem, but I certainly hope it is not considered the panacea for the problem.

It has been striking this spring since the snow and ice has melted to notice just how much trash there is in the city. The other day I was looking out my apartment window at a group of new mothers standing and chatting while rocking their babies, and I noticed that they were standing among trash. It was everywhere. Plastic bags, bottles, broken glass, bones, you name it, and it was there. The Selbe River is not much better. This river which runs north to south past the US embassy and the Sky Center is looking especially polluted and trashy this spring. Now, it is possible that businesses are dumping their trash up stream or near the playground by my apartment building, but it seems more likely the trash is coming from poor sanitation services or households disinclined to properly dispose of waste. In my neighborhood, at least, it seems primarily to be a household and individual problem rather than a private business one.

As a person who utilizes the Selbe River as one of only a handful of precious green spaces left in the city, I certainly feel motivated to help out in doing my part to clean up that space, as well as the playground behind my apartment building. But, I don't exactly feel empowered to do it. For one, even if I did take it upon myself to clean up the Selbe, it would be a Quixotic pursuit at best. There is just too much trash for one person to collect. Another reason is that I am not sure what I would do with the trash once I collected it. I am sure my apartment manager would soon get irritated if I filled up the trash shoot with garbage from the river. Not to mention, I am not even sure if my apartment manager properly disposes of our trash, too!

So, I hope the mayor's office does in fact get tough on cleaning up the city, but I think part of the solution should involve getting private citizens empowered to make a positive contribution to the effort. Whether it's walking the extra five steps to the garbage can on the street to dispose of a ice cream wrapper, or it's forming groups of neighbors to clean up areas that we all live and play in, offering practical ways for disposing of this garbage once it is collected. This stuff does not happen automatically, so someone needs to take the lead role in organizing households and individuals to take the trash problem seriously. Otherwise, we are going to be buried alive in trash in this city.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


At the risk of commenting on a contentious issue that I know little of nor hold a strong opinion about, I had to chuckle this week when I saw Parliament's spring session agenda. The Oyu Tolgoi mining agreement was 12th on the agenda, pushed down the list by higher priorities like a bill on competition (#4) and a bill on restricting the use of plastic bags (#6). Honestly, every bill up for debate in the range 1-11 is probably of great importance, even #4 and #6, but the list does make me question what Parliament's priorities are. I am making the distinction here between something being important and something being a priority. Priorities are by definition important, but they are focused on at the expense of other important things in order to get something accomplished. If one tries to do all things, one often ends up doing nothing. Prioritizing saves us from our over ambitious selves.

Of course, there is a flip side to this. Possibly Parliament has put things on the agenda first that are relatively uncontroversial and easy to decide on so that by the time they reach #12, #13 (Motherland Fund), and #14 (Bill on gas funds), for example, which have a much greater risk of being unresolved this session, everyone can look back and say, "What do you mean we did nothing? We got 11 items resolved during the session!"

Or, there is the possibility that #12 is just far enough away to be unreachable but still appear within reach, punting the issue for another session. As an uninformed plastic bag user I may be unaware of a very powerful tote bag lobby in Mongolia that will stop at nothing to mire the debate on plastic bag usage for weeks. Nevertheless, seems like an unlikely and strange tactic to me for numerous reasons, but this is one political issue that has become surprising for its inability to really surprise anyone anymore. If a tactic is possible, it has, is, or will be tried on this issue. At least it sometimes seems that way with all the stakeholders.

This is the wondrous joy of analyzing politics. Is there method in the madness or is everyone completely mad? Part of the fun and part of the problem is the rest of us speculating which it is.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

National Museum and Presidential Politics

My wife and I went to the National Museum this weekend in search of a new display which contains artifacts discovered in Khotont Soum in Arkhangai Aimag. Khotont is where I spent my Peace Corps days, and I had numerous opportunities while living there to hike through areas with Turkish era monuments and artifacts. Our visit to the museum was a sort of expression of local pride. The soum is right on the southern edge of the Orkhon Valley, and in recent years more and more archaeologists have begun venturing into the soum looking for more evidence to understand the intricacies of life on the steppe in the first millennium. Alas, we did not find the display, but we did find that the museum has undergone significant changes over the last year.

Many of the display halls have been renovated and display cases for the most part are very nicely arranged. I have always been a fan of the national costume hall, and I was pleased to see that it had been renovated and, in fact, the museum is adding more costumes to the display cases. But, among the many changes, the most interesting change was the 20th Century History hall which was the last display area before exiting the museum. It has transformed into the Democratic and Free Market Transition hall with displays of protests in the early 1990s, economic and social changes throughout the last two decades, and commemoration of individuals who took part in bringing about the change. Throughout the hall there were speakers pumping in sounds of speeches at rallies, the noises of crowds, and, of course, the national anthem.

I asked the museum worker when the hall was changed. She indicated that the Democratic Party or Democratic Union (she wasn't sure who) gave money for the renovation a few years ago. It must have occurred recently, though, because my last visit to the museum in June 2008 still had the old display cases. I thought the hall was a great improvement over the previous hall, and it included some really interesting information like a satellite image of Ulaanbaatar with marks indicating where underground pro-democracy youth movements operated in the 80s and the official declarations for acquiring personal passports under the law of the Mongolian People's Republic and present day democratic Mongolia.

This weekend was the start of the presidential campaign season in Mongolia, and it was somewhat fitting to make the "discovery" of the new hall at the museum this very weekend. The presidential race will be a rematch of the 2005 race. There might be a lot to be cynical about with that fact. However, the museum did remind me, at least, that a lot of pride remains in Mongolia about the county's history and future. These are not easy choices to make and these are not easy times in Mongolia (if ever there were), but people in general seem to remain with an overall positive frame of mind. This belief was reaffirmed as we passed Zorig's statue after leaving the museum and we saw that someone had put a string of flowers around his neck. The ideal is alive and well in the minds of people even if the execution is sometimes flawed in reality.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ACMS Annual Meeting

I just arrived in Mongolia after attending the ACMS annual meeting in Chicago. Each year the ACMS holds its annual meeting in conjunction with the Association of Asian Studies annual conference. The windy city is home to a significant population of Mongolian expatriates. This was rather fortuitous, because representatives from the Mongolian Cultural Center were able to draw on the local performing arts community to organize musical performances that followed the meeting. Approximately 100 people were on hand for the meeting which featured standard protocol such as acceptance of the previous meeting's minutes, as well as reports on the ACMS' activities during the year. Once the meeting was adjourned and the musical performances complete, the attendees were treated to an exhibit of Owen Lattimore's photos taken during trips to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang in the 1930s and Mongolian People's Republic in the 1960s and a poster session with scholars conducting research in Mongolia. The Mongolian Cultural Center also provided buuz, boiled meat, and salad for those interested in sampling the culinary aspects of Mongolia.

The annual meeting is always a great time to touch bases with the wider community of scholars and lay people interested in Mongolia. Because of the large Mongolian community in Chicago, this year also attracted a lot of new people who had not previously known about the ACMS and its programs.

Next year the annual meeting will be held in Philadelphia which is only a few hours away from Washington, so we expect we'll have another large turn out for the meeting. It should be a very enjoyable event just like this year's meeting.