For years nobody cared much about Burma. It was an opaque and isolated despotism, its internal moving parts a bleak mystery to the world. Behind its borders lay a country equally beautiful and dangerous. On the one hand, there were the serene medieval temples and pagodas dotting the countryside. On the other, there was the longest civil war in history, a complex battle between the government and Burma’s minority ethnic groups that’s still raging today.

The conflict dates back to 1948, when Burma gained its independence from the British Empire. Many of its minorities were promised regional autonomy. No government has ever granted it.

Burma has more than 135 ethnic groups, officially divided into eight “major national ethnic races”. The largest are the Bamar, the dominant group who control the government and the military.

One of the most persecuted minorities are the Rohingya, a Muslim group who live mostly along the country’s western coast in a state that borders Bangladesh. The central government in Naypyidaw refuses to recognise the Rohingya, and their status has made them vulnerable to the worst abuses of the Burmese army. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh report mass rape by government soldiers.

The Rohingya are frequent targets for expulsion, for both racial and economic reasons. Like many ethnic minorities, they live in resource-rich hinterlands, making their territory valuable for government development projects. The UN high commissioner for human rights has described this as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Others have called it genocide.

Pope Francis will travel to Burma next week – the first pontiff to make the journey. In a video message, he said his goal was to bring the Gospel, a message of “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace”, to the fractured country. It is not the most likely destination for the Bishop of Rome. Out of a population of more than 55 million, 88 per cent are Buddhist. The country’s Christian population is significant but still very much a minority, coming in at under 3.5 million. Catholics by themselves are barely one per cent of the total population.

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