The victims are Muslim, and the persecutors are Buddhist - which doesn't neatly fit our Western world-view.

A human catastrophe is unfolding in Burma, largely unremarked and unreported. Over the past ten days, between 70,000 and 90,000 people have fled Arakan province for neighbouring countries, a decades-long trickle of emigration turning into a torrent. There are credible reports of villages being torched and bodies cremated to hide the evidence of atrocities. The Burmese authorities have prevented the UN from delivering aid in the stricken areas.

And yet, until the weekend, the abominations were largely ignored except in Muslim-oriented media. No government other than Turkey's raised its voice strenuously on behalf of the persecuted Rohingya, whose agonies have never attracted as much attention as those of, say, the Palestinians, or the Yazidis or the migrants pouring across the Mediterranean.

Why not? Several reasons. For one thing, the horrors are far away. When boat people wash up on Spanish holiday beaches or Greek islands, they are arriving in places familiar to British TV viewers. But how many of us have been to Arakan?

To the problems of distance we can add those of inaccessibility. There are few Western journalists in the area. Most reports depend on eye-witness descriptions, some of which will necessarily be partial. The numbers pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh are not in doubt, and the similarities in the refugees' stories are telling: yesterday IBTimes reported on some truly sickening accounts of torture and murders. Even so, an aerial photograph of a burned-out village, or of a column of fleeing villagers, will never have the same force as an image of a drowned toddler on a beach.

There may also, I'm afraid, be a dash of sectarian bias, conscious or not. When Boko Haram kidnaps schoolgirls, or when Daesh murders civilians, writers can press the event into a familiar narrative about Islamist extremism. Here, though, the victims are largely Muslim, and the persecutors are largely Buddhist – a religion we associate with martyred Tibetans and Californian hippies.

Once we have identified people as "victims", we can't easily place them in the mental category of "oppressors", and vice versa. As the psychologists Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray have shown, we tend to classify others either as agents or patients, as those who give it out or those who take it. We find it surprisingly hard to accept the obvious truth that most people are both.

Which brings us to the biggest mental block. The Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is established in our world-view as a victim of almost saintly qualities: a woman who endured years of separation from her family under house arrest, but who eventually emerged to triumph over Burma's brutal junta.

We don't like the idea that she might be turning a blind eye to atrocities for the sake of appeasing the generals, let alone that she might herself be flirting with Buddhist nationalism.

Many of us therefore want to believe the alternative narrative: that what is underway is a counter-terrorist operation aimed, not at the population in general, but at militants. And it's true that, after decades of being harassed and attacked by state forces and local militia, some Rohingya have started to hit back. But that is to misunderstand the nature of what is going on.

The Rohingya, sometimes called "the world's most persecuted minority", have long been denied the most basic civil freedoms. Burma insists that they are not a national minority at all, but are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, having arrived during the British Raj.

Not that this view is shared by Bangladesh: overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, it is doing what it can to prevent any more Rohingya entering its territory. Since 1982, Rohingyas have effectively been treated as stateless.

Why are they so resented by their Burmese neighbours? Largely because, in 1942, when many Arakanese Buddhists sided with the invading Japanese, the Rohingya stayed loyal to Britain.

The army commander, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, pointed explicitly to that conflict in order to justify the current repressions, telling his countrymen: "We will never let such a terrible occurrence happen again".

Britain, in short, is already involved. Involved not only in the sense that we owe an ancestral obligation to our Rohingya auxiliaries; but also in the immediate sense that we, more than any country, helped bring about the recent democratisation of Burma. Part of the deal was that the civil rights of all Burmese, including the Rohingya, would be guaranteed.

To his credit, Boris Johnson has become the first foreign minister of a major Western country to speak out about the current persecution. The rest of us should back him.