Bangkok -

Christian students from Myanmar's Chin ethnic minority have been forced to convert to Buddhism, shave their heads and wear monastic robes, a rights group said on Wednesday.

The Chin, a mainly Christian group in the poor and remote west of the predominantly Buddhist country, face harassment for the link between their faith and British colonial rule, according to the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO).

“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 CHRO.

Rachel Fleming, another member of the group, said Christianity does not fit with an ultra-nationalistic view put forward by successive military regimes that “to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist”.

Chin students are also frequently targeted for enrollment in schools run by Myanmar's military which convert them to Buddhism, she said, adding that Christian students are beaten for failing to recite Buddhist scriptures.

Poverty among the Chin, whose main source of income is farming, leaves the group vulnerable to recruitment to these schools as the military offers free food, education and government jobs once they graduate.

Chin state, which borders India, is home to around 500 000 people. Tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring India to escape army abuses under the former junta, according to rights groups.

In its annual report this year Amnesty International said Chin Christians still face persecution, citing the case of a preacher barred from speaking at a church and ordered to leave the area.

Myanmar is home to a patchwork of ethnic groups and civil war has gripped parts of the country since its independence in 1948.

But Myanmar's reformist government has agreed ceasefires with several ethnic rebel groups as part of reforms since coming to power last year. - Sapa-AFP