By Ben Blanchard
HOHHOT - In China's pre-Olympics crackdown on dissent two communities have received considerable global attention -- the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.
But dissidents and rights groups say the government is targeting another ethnic group as well, Mongolians, largely out of the eye of media and without attracting as much international publicity.
Though China's northern region of Inner Mongolia has not experienced the scale of protests and unrest that have hit Xinjiang, and especially Tibet, the government has been quietly detaining people accused of separatism and harassing activists.
"Recently the authorities have been getting increasingly paranoid," Enhebatu Togochog of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre told Reuters.
"They are confiscating whatever they think are weapons including Mongolian knives which are sold in Mongolian stores solely as artwork," he added.
"Many Mongols traveling to Beijing have been treated as criminal suspects and are not allowed to stay in hotels in Beijing."
In March, police arrested Naranbilig, who had campaigned against Han Chinese migration to Inner Mongolia, and placed him under house arrest, Togochog said. Two weeks prior to that another dissident, Tsebegjab, was also put under house arrest.
Xinna, the wife of Inner Mongolia's best-known jailed dissident, Hada, told Reuters police had intensified surveillance on her and other activists in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, which open on August 8.
"It's white terror," she said, sitting in a Mongolian tea house in regional capital Hohhot. "There's a lot of fear."
Hada was tried behind closed doors in 1996 and jailed for 15 years for separatism, spying and supporting the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, which sought greater rights for ethnic Mongolians. He says the charges were trumped up.
Amnesty International considers Hada a prisoner of conscience and has expressed fears about his well-being.
Unlike the Tibetans, whose spiritual leader the Dalai Lama won a Nobel Peace prize for his work to promote his people's cause, and Rebiya Kadeer, the so-called "mother of the Uighur people", China's Mongolians have no such champion.
"People know of the Dalai Lama, but who do we have? Nobody knows about our problems," said Urasgaal, manager of a Mongolian craft shop in Hohhot which he says has been targeted by police raids looking for supposedly subversive materials.
Inner Mongolia is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy, but like Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west, Beijing keeps a tight rein on the region, fearing ethnic unrest in the country's strategic border areas.
Decades of migration by the dominant Han have made Chinese Mongolians a minority in their own land, officially comprising less than 20 percent of the almost 24 million population of Inner Mongolia.
China's treatment of its ethnic minorities has leapt into the limelight following anti-Chinese violence in Tibet in March and the pro-Tibet protests that have dogged the international leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay.
Yet some Mongolians lament the lack of attention paid to them. "It's as though we have been forgotten by the world," said one soft-spoken Hohhot academic who asked not to be identified.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)