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It's fine for the Canadian government to call the violence against Rohingya in Myanmar a "failure" of the country's government, as it did this week. But what it must do is to make it clear that Myanmar, with a government that is now essentially led by an icon of rights and democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, is violating the fundamental human rights of more than a million people.

That might seem like a feeble protest at a time when Rohingya are fleeing in teeming numbers from what are essentially pogroms – violent attacks by, or sanctioned by, the military, and the burning of houses and villages. But so far, Canada hasn't said that simple thing: that Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya minority is a gross violation of human rights. And that it's unacceptable.

Words don't seem to have the muscle of measures such as reimposing the sanctions against the former Burma that have for the most part been lifted by Western countries. But there are reasons to be cautious about sanctions, and why words are important.

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Read more: Trudeau expresses concern over violence in Myanmar

Myanmar has been able to live for a long time with excuses that its treatment of the Rohingya stems from complexities that outsiders don't get, or, more recently, that it's a response to "terrorists" within their midst. The Rohingya, a small, poor, mostly Muslim ethnic minority, don't have a lot of defenders: Myanmar doesn't want them, and neither does neighbouring Bangladesh; regional powers such as China and India don't care about speaking for them.

That's why Canada should speak up, and be clear.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that members of the minority who have been attacked need to be defended, and Canada is pressuring Myanmar to have it "de-escalate" the "conflict." Not clear enough.

More than 164,000 have fled to Bangladesh. There are reports, echoed by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, of the military attacking Rohingya villagers, or accompanying extremists from the Buddhist majority in Rakhine State when they attack or burn down houses.

Maybe one reason why Canada hasn't been clearer is that Ottawa is loathe to abandon the legend of Ms. Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and honorary Canadian citizen. Her status might be key to Myanmar's still uncertain reforms. Maybe Ottawa hopes she is playing a strategic game, measuring words because she does not hold full power. But we are past that now. On Tuesday, Ms. Suu Kyi blamed disinformation and "terrorists," although on Thursday, she said the government has to protect everyone in the country, "whether or not they are citizens."

There's a clue to the problem: The Rohingya are not citizens. Myanmar calls them illegal immigrants, even though scholars say they have been in the country for centuries and they certainly were there for generations before Burma's independence in 1948. Yet they're not citizens.

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The bigger problem is that they don't have basic rights, such as legal status, said John Packer, the director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, who has been following Rohingya issues since he worked as an aide to the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar in 1993. Without legal status, they are treated like squatters with no rights at all.

"The conclusion I've come to, in 25 years of looking at this, is that it's pretty unadulterated racism," Mr. Packer said. And now, the Rohingya sit on strategically valuable resource-transit routes. "In my mind, they are an inconveniently placed, darker, Muslim minority."

He said there are certainly a small number of violent rebels now among the Rohingya, but that hasn't been a part of the tradition of these people. And even they aren't demanding separation, but simple legal status, he said.

That's why UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's call for Myanmar to give the Rohingya legal status is important, in Mr. Packer's view. Granting citizenship is one thing, but Mr. Guterres is making the point that basic rights have to be respected. It's a point Canada should be making, too.

It's not too surprising if Western countries don't rush to reimpose sanctions out of a fear it could set back democratic reforms. Diplomacy is required. But Myanmar, just out of semi-isolation and led, at least in part, by a rights icon, should hear countries such as Canada saying that one thing is clear: They are violating the basic human rights of the Rohingya

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