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The difficulty in combating ethnic cleansing is it tends to happen incrementally. News of it can come slowly and seem incomplete, which makes it easier for the world to ignore what’s happening.

Canadians learned this the hard way in Rwanda in the 1990s. By the time the situation tipped into full-blown genocide, the moment to act decisively had passed.

As the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Myanmar’s Rohingya people deepens, an opportunity arises for Canada to apply that painful lesson.

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Bob Rae, Ottawa’s special envoy to Myanmar, has issued a report that calls on Canada to take the lead in addressing the plight of the Rohingya, a largely Muslim group that is among the world’s most persecuted minorities.

That involves tripling our financial aid to Myanmar and Bangladesh – to the tune of $600-million for the next four years to provide relief on the ground – and using our influence to persuade like-minded countries to pitch in.

Mr. Rae also wants Canada to open its doors to Rohingya refugees and to initiate and fund an independent process for prosecuting the war crimes perpetrated against them (thousands have been beaten, raped or shot since last summer).

It’s a largely solid plan, and Ottawa should pay attention to it. At last count, 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state were crowded into refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s military leaders, the country’s de facto rulers, seem intent on preventing their return.

Border garrisons are hastily being erected on land formerly occupied by burned-out Rohingya villages; official recruitment efforts are under way to attract Buddhist and Christian Bangladeshi families to resettle northern Rakhine.

There is no consensus definition of ethnic cleansing, but that is the best term for what’s unfolding in Myanmar. And worse could follow. On Tuesday, Mr. Rae said we shouldn’t shy away from expressions like “potential genocide.”

Our country has a tortured history when it comes to such matters. This is a chance to learn from past mistakes. It won’t be simple, or inexpensive, or quick. But the Rohingya need help if they are to survive. Canada must do its part.

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