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Who will help the Rohingya of Myanmar?

Myanmar must know that the world is watching how some of the world's most vulnerable people are being treated.

Far from the world's help and attention, unwanted in Myanmar and unwelcome across the border in Bangladesh, the 800,000 Rohingya people of Rakhine state are friendless, persecuted and increasingly desperate. Myanmar's leaders have a duty to stop the killing and ethnic cleansing; neighbouring countries and the outside world have a duty to provide humanitarian aid.

Stretched along the Bay of Bengal's eastern shore, Rakhine is remote, rural and poor. Most of its 4 million people are Buddhist but the Rohingya are mainly Muslim, adding a sectarian dimension to ethnic rivalry. Across the country, Rohingya are scorned and discriminated against; in Rakhine scores have been killed and 65,000 have fled the latest violence. But they have no place to go.

Officially, the Rohingya are stateless; the military regime arbitrarily revoked their citizenship in 1982. They are called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although in fact they have been in Myanmar for generations. Certainly Bangladesh doesn't want them; it has sealed its border to them and banned NGOs from helping those who do get into the country. For a country that has often needed - and received - crisis aid from abroad, this is particularly abhorrent behaviour.

No government should tolerate ethnic cleansing, but Thein Sein, Myanmar's president since March 2011, has actually offered the 800,000 Rohingya to any country that would accept them. Myanmar's Buddhist monks supported that idea. Even the internationally-acclaimed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has long been mute about the Rohingya. No wonder the United Nations deems the Rohingya one of the world's most-persecuted minorities.

The shock of the latest violence does at least bring some hope of change. On Friday, a committee of MPs chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi called for official action to end killings and ethnic cleansing. Thein Sein's government has brought hope of real reform to a country run until last year by ruthless generals. He should know that the world, starting with Muslim countries, will judge him, and Myanmar, on this issue.

Meanwhile, if Myanmar's military will provide order in Rakhine, the other nine members of Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could take the lead in humanitarian aid for victims of the recent fighting.

Many of these countries did lucrative business with Myanmar's junta for decades, now they have an opportunity to share the profits with some of the neediest in the country.

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