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Return of the Rohingya: A Lacking Agreement?

Since August of 2017, nearly 800,000 refugees have flooded southeastern Bangladesh, the vast majority of them ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, fleeing violence in their home country [1]. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the crisis has become one of the fastest growing in the world [2]. While sectarian violence in the western state of Rakhine has been bubbling for decades, the most recent situation began in August of 2017, when a small group of Rohingya militants launched an attack against law enforcement [3]. The retaliatory response from the Myanmar armed forces, however, was disproportionate to say the least; the refugees have told tales of burned villages, mass rape, and genocide.

A graphic from Al-Jazeera demonstrating the geographic range of the crisis.

The crisis was precipitated by the complete exclusion of the Muslim Rohingya population from a majority-Buddhist Myanmar society through restrictions on their citizenship. In a 1982 law, the government of Myanmar laid out the 135 ethnic groups that comprised the country and were thus its citizens; the Rohingya, however, numbering over one million, were conveniently left out [4]. An ethnic group left stateless and with few opportunities to change their situation, the Rohingya turned in small numbers to radical, violent protest. Since then, sectarian violence has grown, encouraged by the military dictatorship’s legacy of xenophobic discourse.

But in early June, there were signals that the immediate crisis could soon come to an end and that the refugees could have a chance at leaving their large camps in Bangladesh. The government of Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UN, signalling that the two entities would partner up to facilitate the return of displaced Rohingya [5]. A bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh had already been set forth in January [6], but the UN memorandum seems to have added a few more provisions. For the first time since the violence began, international organizations will have a chance to enter the previously restricted Rakhine state [7]. The document also provided for the creation of a pathway to citizenship for the Rohingya and a protection of their human rights going forward [8]. As long as the government can stem the violence and the refugees elect to return, it seems—from the outside—that the region could be on the mend.

Photo: Jun Ha for the European Pressphoto Agency

A concerning characteristic of the process, however, has been a stark lack of transparency. Though the memorandum was signed at the beginning of June, UN reporters only speak of the mechanisms and details of return in abstract terms. Since neither the general public nor any members of civil society have been given access to the document itself, it is not clear what kind of compromise has been reached or how stringently any agreement can be enforced [9]. While the government of Myanmar can now proclaim that it has done its due diligence in settling the crisis, local and international NGOs have no idea what the next few months or years are going to look like.

Furthermore, because the details of the memorandum are secret, it is unknown how the agreement will directly address the root causes of tension. As the Culture of Peace and Nonviolence program has demonstrated, the best ways to ensure lasting peace are found in changing the attitudes of potentially violent parties and integrating nonviolent solutions to conflict as societal values. Merely agreeing on the right of return for refugees is a band-aid solution for the situation that has developed in Myanmar. The memorandum appears groundbreaking, but in reality, it does little good to the situation if it does not change the social environment that created the problems in the first place. Short-term solutions do not fix the long-term issues that persist.

And these long-term issues are still strikingly severe. “Most of the Myanmar population, especially the Buddhist majority, feels that the Rohingya don’t belong in their country” [10], and descriptions of the community as “dirty, thieving people who steal from the Burmese” [11] are in common use throughout much of the local population. As late as May 31, the UN High Commission for Refugees stated that “conditions are not conducive for voluntary return yet” [12]. Given such an assessment, it is not likely that the Rohingya will be able to return to their homes anytime soon, meaning they must remain in the crowded refugee centers across the border.

In order to actually facilitate the violence-free return of the refugees, the agreement needs to include provisions that promote a culture of peace. Short-term peacebuilding strategies need to be combined with the long-term efforts to discourage future violent conflict. Nonviolent solutions must become part of the education and legal structures of Myanmar to develop the necessary social environment for sustained return. The training of individuals and groups in the government and public sector would allow for nonviolence to become a key part of the social contract. A judicial and law enforcement system steeped in the concepts of peaceful resolution would ensure a more equitable treatment of citizens and enhance the rule of law, a key aspect for a transitioning democracy. An agreement with the UN is perhaps a good step toward this and toward the return of the Rohingya, but the full cooperation of the government and the inclusion of civil society will both be needed to forge a better society.


[1] “‘No Other Conclusion,’ Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingyas in Myanmar Continues – Senior UN Rights Official.” United Nations. March 6, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[2] "Rohingya Refugee Crisis." OCHA. May 31, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[3] Rieffel, Lex. "On the Ground in Myanmar: The Rohingya Crisis and a Clash of Values." Medium. December 01, 2017. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[4] Viviano, Frank. "Lost Myanmar Empire Is Stage for Modern Violence." June 26, 2015. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[5] “No Other Conclusion.” United Nations.

[6] "Myanmar Willing to Take Back All Rohingya Refugees, Top Official Says." The Independent. June 02, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[7] Mahtani, Shibani. "The U.N. and Burma Signed a Deal to Resettle Rohingya Refugees, but No One Knows What's in It." The Washington Post. June 12, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rieffel. “On the Ground in Myanmar.”

[11] Viviano. “Lost Myanmar Empire is Stage for Modern Violence.”

[12] Beech, Hannah. "Myanmar and U.N. Agree to Aim for Repatriation of Rohingya." May 31, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2018.

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