Christian Students in Myanmar Forced to Shave Heads, Convert to Buddhism

A Christian aid group has revealed that students from Myanmar's Chin ethic minority are being forced to shave their heads and convert to Buddhism, despite the president's insistence that religious freedom is protected in the South Asian nation.

"President Thein Sein's government claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de facto state religion," said Salai Ling, Program Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).

Myanmar's population of 55 million is heavily Buddhist at 89 percent, the CIA Factbook reveals, with Baptist Christians accounting for three percent and Roman Catholics numbering one percent.

The Chin nonprofit group, which was established on the India-Burma border by a group of Chin activists, stated, however, that an ultra-nationalistic viewpoint has gripped the country, pushed by a military regime that dictates that "to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist."

The organization highlighted the plight of Christian students who enroll at schools run by Myanmar's military, explaining that often times the students are beaten for failing to recite Buddhist scriptures, forced to shave their heads as per Buddhist tradition and convert to the Eastern religion.

The Chin population, which numbers about 500,000 people, struggle with poverty and their only real source of income is fishing, the human rights group reported. This situation leads them to seek out military schools, which provide free food, education and government jobs once they graduate.

"These schools are designed to facilitate a forced assimilation policy under the guise of development. The schools appear to offer a way out of poverty but there is a high price to pay for Chin students. They are given a stark choice between abandoning their identity and converting to Buddhism, or joining the military to comply with the authorities' vision of a 'patriotic citizen'," CHRO Advocacy Director Rachel Fleming said.

A detailed report by CHRO explores the hardships the Chin population have faced for over a decade, and documents human rights abuses they have suffered such as forced labor and torture, which has forced thousands of them to flee their homeland.

In its report, the organization urges the government to abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the military-controlled Education and Training Department under the Ministry for Border Affairs, and instead use the resources to further education and minority languages in the national curriculum.

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