From the very beginning, mainstream media in the west simplified the Sudan issue as a conflict between the Moslem Arabs in the north and the Christian Africans in the south. The reality is considerably more complicated. This region has had an extremely long and complex history that reaches back centuries with multiple internal and external actors, but ultimately resulting in the birth of an independent Republic of South Sudan in July 2011. The global community is providing support, including through the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Mongolia first dispatched 850 peacekeeping troops in 2012 and has since maintained a comparable number of personnel to help maintain peace and security in this fledging nation of about 11 million people.
The colonial period under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium from 1899 to 1956 saw minimal development across Sudan. The southern part was particularly neglected. Beyond the construction of dirt roads between key towns, only basic infrastructural development comprising rudimentary health and education facilities were constructed and this focused primarily on main towns. Independence from colonial rule saw the south descend into almost five decades of civil conflict and the majority of the challenges that plagued the country prior to independence still continue today.
Vast expanses of South Sudan have never experienced modern governance or rule of law. Rich in natural resources including oil, the country is incredibly diverse geographically, socially, politically and economically with varied landscapes comprising of temperate mountain ranges, swamps and deserts.
At less than half the geographic size of Mongolia, South Sudan has over 60 distinct ethnic groups many speaking their own language. The largest tribe currently dominating government is the Dinka that represent 36 percent of the total population, while the second largest tribe–leading opposition factions–is the Nuer at 16 percent. These two groups are predominantly pastoralists and have historically been antagonistic toward one another. The rest of the population is made up of smaller tribes, some pastoralists others sedentary agriculturalists.
The post-independence violence in 2013 and 2016 ended with tenuous ceasefires and a Peace Agreement that is largely holding. However, tensions in South Sudan, caused by the factionalism and fighting between different highly politicized ethnic groups remain. The situation is South Sudan today is very similar to the nomadic tribal steppe armies that existed across Mongolia prior to unification under Genghis Khan at the beginning of the 13th Century.
The Mongolian Battalion or Monbatt as they referred to locally, are deployed in a particularly remote region in the north that makes up Unity State, along the border with Sudan and the contested region of Abyei. Unity State is among the key oil producing areas. Oil accounts for 98 percent of South Sudan’s foreign revenue.
Curiously, many South Sudanese are aware of the exploits of Genghis Khan and his successes against Imperial China. President Elbegdorj visited South Sudan in February 2013 and is to this date the only Asian President to ever visit the country. Mongolia’s contribution is very prominent. MonBatt quickly established a reputation for being one of the most effective peacekeeping contingents. The efficiency, bravery and professionalism demonstrated by the Mongolian peacekeepers has earned the respect of local residents and everyone in the area including NGO and other UN personnel.
Ulaanbaatar’s policy goal to establish a balance between conventional and peacekeeping capabilities has proven successful. Mongolian peacekeepers have also been deployed to Abyei, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Western Sahara and Yemen. Mongolia’s contribution to UN peace keeping missions has also raised and strengthened the country’s international profile. At the same time these assignments provide the Mongolian Armed Forces with significant experiences and exposure while underscoring the image of a responsible member of the global community.
Mandated by UN Security Council under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter to use force when necessary to protect civilians and maintain peace, Mongolian peacekeepers in South Sudan make an invaluable contribution to UNMISS. They are helping to consolidate peace, state building and economic development; support the government in conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution and the protection of civilians. The Mongolian peacekeepers offer hope for the future and provide a fine example of the value of a professional army operating in very difficult circumstances.