The head of the United Nations has rightly called Burma's ruthless persecution of the minority Rohingya people ethnic cleansing. In just the past three weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, leaving behind razed villages and what few possessions they owned.

The catastrophe has unfolded rapidly and left Asia facing its most acute humanitarian crisis since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

Rohingya Muslims have lived in Burma, also known as Myanmar, for centuries. Burma refuses to accept them as citizens.

Their status means they have limited access to healthcare and education. Many exist in squalid settlements in the western state of Rakhine.

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Tensions between Buddhists and the Rohingya have been high for at least a decade but boiled over a year ago when Muslim militants attacked border posts. Retaliation was savage, with Burmese security forces accused of systematic slaughter and widespread gang-rape.

Similar allegations were levelled at police and the army last month after the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army hit a military base.

Security experts say the militants are directed from Mecca by hardened emigres, raising the disturbing prospect that Burma's brutal crackdown could turn increasing numbers of Rohingya towards militant resistance. Rangoon claims the militants want to create an Islamist state in Rakhine.

Such an outcome holds grave implications for the region. The crisis has deepened divisions between Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, with protests erupting in Pakistan, India and Indonesia.

The response of Burma's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has disappointed many who believed the Nobel Peace Prize laureate would take a stand against the bloodshed. But her civilian Government does not control the military and she has seemed impotent to stop the deepening tragedy.

The UN has fared little better. The Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has urged the Security Council to help end the military crackdown. The best the council has offered so far is to call for immediate steps to end the violence.

New Zealand is among the countries urging an end to the bloodshed and has given $1.5 million to help the Red Cross' aid work in the camps.

Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee said: "Whilst acknowledging the need to restore law and order, we urge the Myanmar Government to take all necessary steps to protect civilians and enable humanitarian support to be delivered to all affected communities."

Burma is not without friends. It has asked China and Russia to block any Security Council censure.

Ultimately, the crisis is one for the region to solve. The reality is the Rohingya have lived in Burma for many, many years. They have nowhere else to go. If they are prevented from making a home in the land they know, and continue to be subjected to what Guterres says are "horrible numbers of people dying and suffering", the countries which neglect to help resolve the tragic crisis could come to deeply regret their failure.