Huang Yanling’s grandparents had thought they could never return home to China when they sought asylum in Myanmar almost six decades ago.
The pair from Tengchong, in Yunnan ( 雲南 ) province, were driven out of the country along with countless others when a nationwide famine hit as a result of Mao Zedong’s ( 毛澤東 ) Great Leap Forward in 1959.
Little did they know that more than 50 years later their future granddaughter Huang, would have returned to Yunnan as an immigrant to run the family’s jade merchant business, or that in a reversal of their own misfortune, many Myanmese would one day be making the opposite journey, seeking safety on the Chinese side of the border.
Huang, 24, plies her trade in the bustling Chinese border town of Ruili City – just a stone’s throw over the river that separates it from the Myanmese town of Muse, where Huang’s grandparents found safety all those years ago and where she herself grew up.
Thousands of other Myanmese – many from Muse and neighbouring towns – have fled across the border and into Ruili to escape the latest outbreak of fighting between ethnic rebel groups and government forces.
The fighting has heaped uncertainty on the fragile peace process and dealt a blow to the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire and establish a “just peace” with rebels to end the ethnic violence that has plagued Myanmar on and off since Huang’s grandparents’ escaped Mao’s China.
The latest clashes broke out on November 20 involving four rebel groups in at least four border towns across Myanmar’s northern Shan and Kachin states, and have caused dozens of casualties, displaced thousands and caused the suspension of cross-border trade.
Many believe China can play a major role in mediating the long-stalled peace process because ethnic communities, such as Huang’s, and most rebel groups in northern Myanmar are culturally and economically closer to Yunnan than to the rest of Myanmar.
But most Myanmese living in border areas – including Huang – are pessimistic.
“I do not believe Suu Kyi or China can solve the ethnic problems in Myanmar. That’s simply a mission impossible,” Huang said.
For Huang – like many other ethnic Chinese in the border areas – history is bringing her family’s search for refuge full circle, with her relatives often joining her in Ruili to escape the fighting.
“My grandparents were so poor that they fled the massive famine [in China] nearly empty-handed. They journeyed all the way to mountainous areas near China’s southwest border and then entered Myanmar,” Huang explained.
Life was not easy in Muse – now a booming trade zone for jade, timber and minerals but an almost deserted border post 50 years ago – but they managed to settle down and raise six children, including Huang’s father Huang Fusheng, their youngest son (now 45).
“My father often told me how difficult it was for ethnic Chinese refugees to make a living when he was a kid. They had to work extremely hard and grew corn among other agricultural products on the bleak and barren land,” she said.
Economic hardship grew when the military led by General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government and imposed bans on cross-border trade in 1962.
Soon afterwards, brutal armed conflicts broke out between ethnic minority groups and government troops, especially in the areas along the northern border with China.
Periodic outbreaks of violence have continued ever since. In the latest flare-up, four rebel groups say they are protecting the interests of the Ta’ang, Kachin and Shan peoples in remote border areas.
WATCH: Gunshots ring out as exodus of Myanmar refugees continues into China
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) led by ethnic Chinese warlord Peng Jiasheng, the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army have formed an alliance and accuse Suu Kyi of turning a blind eye to the military’s crackdown on northern rebel groups in recent months.
“This is not a normal war, it’s a landscape shaped by 70 years of armed conflict and very little normal government,” said Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and the grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant. “We’ve had several years of peace talks and now more armed fighting than in a very long time.”
Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre, said the latest fighting – just two months after the much-touted 21st Century Panglong peace conference – was a carefully calculated move by the rebel groups to raise their profile in Suu Kyi’s peace talks and garner outside attention from countries like China.
“Many may think the Panglong conference is a historical turning point in Myanmar’s ethnic problems, but frankly it was unrealistic to believe so,” she said.
The military, which still wields considerable influence in Myanmar’s politics, has undermined Suu Kyi’s attempts to secure the participation of all the 20 major armed ethnic groups in the talks, the first since the 1947 Panglong Conference, named after a small town in Myanmar’s southern Shan State.
The MNDAA, under pressure from Beijing, attended the September conference, which also saw representatives from 17 ethnic groups including the Karen, Kachin, Shan and Wa who together make up 40 per cent of the country’s population. But the other three groups fighting government troops were blocked from the meeting.
A former aide to Myanmar’s warlord Peng Jiasheng said many Chinese descendants in Myanmar were still struggling to find their own identity. “They don’t consider themselves as Burmese or Chinese. They think they are ethnic Chinese but they want to remain quasi-independent as they have been for decades,” he said.
For Huang, questions of identity are particularly pertinent. She regards it as nothing short of a miracle that her grandparents survived both China’s Great Famine and decades-worth of ethnic strife in Myanmar.
WATCH: Gunshot at the border of China and Myanmar
It was not until 1988, when the cross-border trade ban implemented by General Ne Win was lifted, that her family resumed contact with her relatives in Yunnan and began to do business in the border areas where she now trades herself.
While her parents and most of her relatives still live in Muse, they come over to the Chinese side of the border when the fighting intensifies. “Of course we are deeply affected. But what else can we do?” she said.
Indeed, amid the sporadic gunshots and explosions of stray shells that can still be heard across Ruili as the heaviest armed conflict of recent years drags into its third week, Huang and many others have become inured to the violence. “Frankly, I grow numb to this kind of violence year after year,” she said. “I don’t really feel scared any more.”