TO mention Mongolia is to conjure images of Genghis Khan and his hordes charging on horseback across the great plains of the Gobi Desert, stampeding the steppes to impose their bloody system of justice on the rest of the world.
But Mongolia also has a peaceful heritage brought to it by the Dalai Lama and the gentle Buddhist priests from Tibet, whose faithful followers ruled the country as recently as 1924 and whose influence is now being rapidly revived after the failed communist effort to implant atheism in this faraway place.
The first nation to go communist after Lenin's Russian Revolution and the first communist nation to go for glasnost and perestroika after Gorbachev's innovations in the Soviet Union, Mongolia is also the first Asian country to shed communism. Modern Mongolia may sound like an oxymoron. But after a successful and bloodless revolution that was launched in 1989, the country has resolutely set out on the path of reform.
A new democratic Constitution has been adopted, free parliamentary elections have been held, and a president was chosen by the people - 92 percent of whom voted - in a fair and open election last June.
Landlocked, surrounded by two giants, Russia and China, one or the other of which has dominated it over many centuries, Mongolia was really run by the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1989. Today its chances for successful reform appear to be as good as - perhaps better than - any of the 15 newly independent nations that emerged from the shattered Soviet Union.
Its circumstances resemble Russia's in many ways. President Punsalmaagyn Ochirbat, like Boris Yeltsin, is a former communist leader and a present reformer who faces a legislature ruled by former communist apparatchiks, who either violently oppose change or are lukewarm about it. Mr. Ochirbat, also like Mr. Yeltsin, is making a determined effort to privatize and to establish a market economy.
Working their way to an independent judiciary is one of the greatest challenges facing Ochirbat and his country.
"Justice is difficult to implement because of our economic situation," says Jugneegiyn Amarsanaa, co-author of the Constitution and former minister of justice. "The new Constitution provides the right to have a public defender, but we never had them before, and there is no money to train and pay them."
Other problems Mongolia faces in implementing justice include: a criminal-procedure law still based on old communist ways; the reluctance of its parliament to enact laws fulfilling the promises of the new Constitution; the fact that, although they are 90 percent literate, few citizens are fully aware of their newly won rights; and a general lack of understanding of the very concept of individual human rights.
Progress is hampered by the secretive habits of the Great Hurai, the Mongolian parliament. Its 176 members don't debate or vote in public. Radio and television, not yet independent, are also barriers to the free flow of information.
Yet nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. Two American groups are actively promoting human rights in Mongolia.
The Asian Foundation, which works in 31 other countries, is opening an office to help strengthen institutions concerned with broadening participation in public life and policy.
SHARE, a new organization created by two young Americans, Matt Lorin and Lori Handrahan, recently established a human rights and development center at the Mongolian State University here in nation's capital. Newly endowed with 20 computers and 800 books from the United States on law and human rights, the center is governed by an in-country board of directors. It will provide training, resources, and expertise to Mongolians as they develop a society that embodies the principles and promises of their new C onstitution.
That Constitution contains several unique provisions.
One declares that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the basis of "ethnic origin, language, race, age, sex, social origin and status, property, occupation and education."
Another, recognizing that rights must be accompanied by responsibilities, states, "It is a sacred duty for every citizen to work to protect his/her health, to bring up and educate his/her children and to protect nature and the environment."
Still another, in keeping with the ancient traditions of the former nomads and children of herdsmen who are forging this new Mongolian society, specifies, "This Constitution of Mongolia shall enter into force ... at the hour of Horse on the young, strong and benevolent ninth day of Yellow Horse of the first spring month of the Black Tiger of the year of the Water Monkey of the seventeenth 60-year cycle."
The document closes with an admonition: "Learn the Constitution and Abide by it."
* Former Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California was an official US monitor for the June 6 presidential election in Mongolia.