Centuries ago, the most feared pirates and sailors in the Bay of Bengal terrorized communities along the seacoast and far up the river channels of what is now Bangladesh. They were called maghs, or pirates. This continues to be the popular name of this tribe, originally from the Arakan region of Burma. Today, they are settled in the Chittagong Hills area of southeastern Bangladesh.
The people themselves dislike the term "Magh" and prefer to be called Marmas, which means "Burmese." They are of Thai origin and are believed to have come to the hills of Bangladesh by way of Arakan after their ancestors were driven out of China. They speak Arakanese, a Tibeto-Burman language, and regard Burma as the center of their cultural life.
Bangladesh is a new nation, having begun its course when the Muslim population broke away from Hindu India in 1947, forming East and West Pakistan. In 1971, internal strife precipitated a civil war, and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Having left the seas long ago, the Marma are now valley farmers. Forced out of the plains and into the hills by more powerful groups, they have adopted the "slash and burn" method of agriculture. In Maghi society, farm land is community property. After one year's use, the field must be left fallow for a sufficient time to let the earth recover. After the fallow period, anyone and everyone can work this field. No individual, family, or kinship group has prerogative rights to the land. Farming and other activities tie families to the community and the community to families.
The Marma continue to write and dress in ways similar to Burmese culture, although many in the northern Chittagong Hills have come under significant Bengali influence. According to their custom, marriages are restricted to within the clan. Marma villages consist of 10 to 50 houses built on the banks of streams. The houses are generally flimsy structures constructed on bamboo piles. Often, a roofed platform at the end of the village street serves as a community house where men socialize, share stories, and discuss village business.
The Marma are one of the few tribes in the Chittagong Hills who have clan chiefs and display formal tribal and clan organization. Following traditional tribal culture, villages are headed by representatives chosen by the villagers. They are often assisted by an informal council of elders. In order to connect with the Bengali government, the tribal areas are divided and subdivided into geographical regions, with the tribal head of each small area responsible to the leader of the larger region.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Although several religions are represented among the Marma, the most common religion is a blend of Buddhism and animism (belief that non-human objects have spirits). The theology of Buddhism alleges that man undergoes a cycle of separate existences and that all living things are endowed with individual souls. A devout Buddhist is able to progress toward his goal of nirvana-a state of eternal bliss-through the accumulation of merit-earning acts.
The animistic ingredient includes the worship and appeasement of local spirits, such as house spirits, village spirits, and territorial spirits, which rule over rice fields, forests, lakes, rivers, and other places. In order to avoid accidents, misfortune, and illnesses, one must try to manipulate and placate the spirits through rituals and offerings of food and flowers. Male and female mediums enter trances to attempt to communicate with the spirits so that they might discover future events.
What Are Their Needs?
The Marma, along with other tribal groups of the Chittagong Hills, have experienced oppression from the Bengali government and from settlers moving into their tribal territories. As a result of the economic poverty and land hunger in Bangladesh, many Marma have experienced large scale evictions, torture, and massacres. Also, the devout, animistic Buddhist traditions have made the tribe members unreceptive to the Gospel in the past.
* Pray for justice in the Bengali government's treatment of the Marma and the other tribal peoples.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to work among the Marma.
* Pray that God will give the Marma believers boldness to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies focusing on the Marma.
* Ask God to speed evangelistic materials into the Marma language.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Marma towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
* Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among the Marma.
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