Mongolians protest over alleged theft of government funds

A child walks past Mongolians holding up banners, one of which reads "Arkhangai - We support fight against offshore account holders for the sake of our future, children" during a protest in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Friday, March 31, 2017. Hundreds of Mongolians have protested in the capital Ulaanbaatar over the alleged theft of government funds deposited in offshore accounts. (AP Photo/Ganbat Namjilsangarav)
Mongolians hold up banners which read: "Oyu-Tolgoi mine and the Noyon Mountain are in offshore account." and "Let's guarantee security of our nation" during a protest in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Friday, March 31, 2017. Hundreds of Mongolians have protested in the capital Ulaanbaatar over the alleged theft of government funds deposited in offshore accounts. (AP Photo/Ganbat Namjilsangarav)

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Hundreds of Mongolians protested in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, on Friday over the alleged theft of government funds deposited in offshore accounts.

Opposition politicians and activists demanded the return of what some said is $17 billion in funds plundered by ruling party politicians and their influential friends.

They also called on the country's parliament to launch a special investigation of offshore accounts and pass a law prohibiting public officials, politicians and their family members from holding such accounts.

Uyanga Gantomor, chairwoman of a minor opposition party, said there was money sitting in offshore accounts that had been stolen from Mongolians.

"These thieves stole from schools, kindergartens and from your children and from the happiness of your families," she told the crowd in Ulaanbaatar's central square. "If they bring their stolen money back to Mongolia, then we can forgive them."

Former President Enkhbayar Nambar, who has served time in prison for corruption, addressed the crowd of about 1,500 to 2,000 people. "Not everyone is perfect; I went wrong once," he said. "For that, I have asked forgiveness. How about others ask for forgiveness also! Let's bring the money hidden in offshore accounts and distribute it to the people," he said to loud cheers.

Mongolia is in the midst of an economic crisis caused partly by a decline in prices for mineral exports.

More than 30 percent of the 3 million people in the landlocked country live in poverty, and many are angry over an austerity plan that has hit the poor hardest.

One of the protest organizers, Batchuluun San, head of the People's Emergency Council, a private group that focuses on graft, said the protest was in response to the "Panama Papers" scandal last year in which thousands of pages of documents related to offshore accounts were leaked, including accounts of members of the Mongolian political and business elite.

"Today we have individuals in Mongolia who are richer than the state," said Batchuluun. "We want the government to investigate politicians with offshore accounts based on these documents."

Gansukh Khaltar, an independent economist, said Mongolia needs a law that regulates offshore accounts held by officials, but questioned the $17 billion figure used by protesters.

"How did several rich and influential people manage to steal $17 billion in the last 27 years as the protesters claim? Why would foreign mining companies give this huge amount of bribes to Mongolian politicians?" he said.

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