‘I wish I were a Chinese citizen’: one Myanmar refugee’s story of his family’s flight to safety in China
Thousands of people have left their homes for the mainland after clashes between rebel groups and government forces broke out over the weekend
Sai Yie Sai woke to the sound of a gunshot early on Sunday morning at his home in northern Myanmar, but was not scared. He has grown accustomed to the sound of shooting on the border with China where weapons, opium and smuggling are part of everyday life.
As the exchange of fire became more intense and the earthshaking sound of artillery boomed overhead as rebel groups and government forces clashed around the small town of Pang Hseng, he then realised he and his family were in serious danger.
He gathered his wife, son and a 10-year-old daughter and rushed for safety towards the nearest Chinese border checkpoint only a few kilometres away. Only after they had successfully entered peaceful Chinese territory did they realise they were still wearing pyjamas.
Sai, 56, is one of thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar amid the breakout of fighting over the weekend.
With Chinese relatives living just across the border, Sai was lucky enough to get help from members of his family. Many other Myanmar refugees are living in makeshift tents and in a public square.
China has set up shelters in Wanding county and Manghai county which border Myanmar by a shallow river. More than 3,000 thousands refugees have now been given shelter.
Huang Yanlin, a Myanmar merchant selling jade in China whose relatives live across the border in Muse, said it had turned into a virtual ghost town. All of its residents have fled to the city of Ruili in China since the fighting intensified, he said.
Gunshots could still be heard at midnight on Tuesday in Wanding county and the number of refugees fleeing to China is expected to increase.
The rest of Sai’s family has spent three nights in China at his sister’s home in Ruili.
He travelled to Wanding county on Tuesday in the hope that he could cross the border and return to his house if conflict dies down.
“I dread my house might be burned down or robbed by drug addicts,” said Sai, speaking in Chinese with a Yunnan province accent.
The continued sound of gunfire, however, made him put his plans on hold.
Clutching an old, red blanket, Sai said that if all hotels in Wanding were full, he would rest by the side of the road.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made peace negotiations with various rebel groups in Myanmar a top priority of her administration since her party won elections last year, but the sudden outbreak of violence appears to have dashed her hopes.
“I like Suu Kyi, but Suu Kyi cannot do anything, the top generals do not listen to her,” said Sai.
“I don’t think the conflict will stop because there are so many military factions and the top generals will never give up.”
Sai is a small businessman and farmer selling the agricultural produce he grows to China, including watermelons, corn and rice. His living depends on trade with the mainland and any military conflict that harms Myanmar-China relations and effects cross-border trade is a nightmare for him.
“I hate military conflict,” said Sai, who has experienced fighting throughout his life in Myanmar amid insurgencies that have lasted for decades.
Sai’s grandfather moved from Yunnan province to northern Myanmar almost a century ago. As the third generation of Chinese descendants born and bred in Myanmar, China is still important to him.
“I did not live in Pang Hseng before. The reason why I moved there eight years ago was because my kids could learn Chinese in school, ” said Sai.
“China is good. China is safe. And the Chinese government is good. If I have the opportunity, I wish to come back to China as a Chinese citizen,” he said.