Father of Mongolian Democracy

Father of Mongolian Democracy

Father of Mongolian Democracy

Father of Mongolian Democracy


by Paula L.W. Sabloff

I became involved with Mongolia through good luck and good friends when the country had already become an independent democracy. The more I experienced Mongolia, the more interested I became in two questions: Why did Mongolians take to democracy so easily after centuries of oppression followed by seventy years of Communist rule? And why do I feel so at home in Mongolia? In other words, what is there about Mongolians that makes an American feel that we easily understand each other?

I think these questions are very much linked together. I have been working as a cultural anthropologist in Mongolia since 1994, living many months in Ulaanbaatar and spending several weeks in the western aimag province of Hovd. As an anthropologist, my job is to live the way Mongolians do, observe their behavior, ask them questions, and listen to what they say. As an anthropologist, I am curious about (a) how they manage different situations–how they obtain and prepare food, how they earn a living, how they educate their children, how they relax; and (b) what do they think about the world around them–their families, their history, their government, and their place in the world.

My impression of Mongolians is that they are very much like us, for Mongolians and Americans have the same ideal of what a man should be–a rugged, independent, resourceful, self-sufficient loner. The Marlboro Man. The difference is that the Mongolian Marlboro Man is connected to a mother–to family and friends–while the American version revels in his isolation from society.

Mongolians have a wonderful sense of humor, something we Americans pride ourselves on also. I have often been with a group of Mongolians–a family, a group of friends, or people who work together–and noticed that they are always talking, telling stories, or relating what happened to them yesterday. But when they tell these stories, they always tell them in such a way that everyone gets to laugh at the end. Mongolians bond through laughter.

Mongolians and Americans also share similar histories. For varying periods, we both have been underdogs fighting off powerful colonial masters to build free, democratic nations. We are both tremendously proud of our traditions of freedom and democracy.

How did independence and democratic principles take root in Mongolia so early in the world’s history, and how did these ideals survive through such a brutal history? We start with Mongolia’s greatest leader, Genghis Khan, although we will see that the story of Mongolian democracy really precedes him.

Many Westerners think of Genghis Khan as a marauder who burned and pillaged Europe, Asia, and Persia.1 He was born in 1162 CE along the Onon River in present-day Hentii (Khentei) Aimag. By 1189, when he was only twenty-seven years old, he had united the Mongol peoples into an independent nation instead of separate clans and tribes. Between 1189 and 1206, he expanded Mongol territory to roughly the territory of Mongolia today. At that point, he was elected Genghis Khan of All Mongols.2

Genghis Khan’s soldiers were famous for their fierceness and skill in riding and shooting arrows. Their armor and stirrups were constructed to allow maximum freedom of movement on a horse, and this enabled them to shoot arrows with deadly accuracy while riding at full gallop. They could even hit their targets when shooting backwards from a galloping horse.3 The range of their composite bows–made of wood, sinew, and antler horn –exceeded that of European bows of the time. Genghis Khan built a military organization that enabled him to incorporate whole units of foreign soldiers, thus assuring himself a limitless number of troops for further conquest. But his real secret weapon may have been that they were eating a high-protein diet of meat, milk, and cheese while China and Europe were falling asleep on their diet of rice, pasta, and porridge! Of course these pasta-eaters were easy prey for the meat-eating Mongols!

By the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had captured and controlled the Silk Road. He had conquered all the way west through Central Asia and Russia to the Caspian Sea, south past Beijing to the Yellow River, and southwest to Persia. It is still the largest empire ever conquered under one man’s rule (see Map 4, Chapter 1).

Westerners evaluating outstanding achievement during the last millennium are only now recognizing his incredible accomplishment in a positive light. Some have even awarded Genghis Khan first prize for Greatest Achievement in the Category of Conqueror.4 Despite this revisionist view, most Westerners still see him as a terror. But Genghis Khan has a different reputation among his descendants, the people of modern Mongolia. To them, his greatness lies in the fact that he gave his people the gifts of independence and the basic principles from which they could eventually build a modern democratic state.

Please note that I am not saying that Genghis Khan actually led a democratic government. There is a big difference between establishing democratic principles and running a democratic state. While some democratic principles can exist in a society that is not democratic, a democracy cannot exist without a basic cluster of democratic principles. So Genghis Khan may be considered the father of Mongolian democracy even though he ran a military state. After all, no one credits King John with establishing a democracy after he signed the Magna Carta, yet we trace the beginning of Western democracy to his relinquishing some authority to his noblemen. Genghis Khan preceded the Magna Carta (by nine years), and he instituted democratic principles willingly rather than under duress. In redesigning Mongolian government, he codified several key elements of democracy that became part of Mongolians’ memory. Anthropologists would say that Genghis Khan established the political culture that is still in the minds of Mongolians today.

Political Culture

What is political culture and why is it so important to a nation? Simply put, politics is about different ways of organizing the distribution of resources. Some examples are monarchy, totalitarianism, consensus democracy, and majority-rule democracy. Political culture is a people’s preference for one way of making decisions about how resources are distributed over another.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman who visited the United States when it was a young democracy, characterized American political culture as guided by love of equality and individualism, civil society, a belief in the sovereignty of the people (through majority rule), and distrust of government.5 Many would argue that the political culture he observed nearly two centuries ago is still intact today. If anything, we are at a point where we are even more distrustful of government, for our love of individualism and capitalism seems to be even more extreme than it was in the 1830s.

I went to Mongolia in 1998 to discover Mongolian political culture. And in the process, I stumbled across something bigger–namely, the roots of their political culture today. These roots are their traditional nomadic lifestyle and their ancient ruler, Genghis Khan.

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