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Bizarre 'God's Army' Led By Young Boys Surrenders

Richard S. Ehrlich - 7/27/2006

Mystical twin boys, reputedly born with black tongues and bullet-proof animist powers, no longer lead a deadly God's Army of 200 guerrillas along the violent Burma-Thailand border. Johnny Htoo, one of the sensational twins, surrendered with nine other God's Army rebels to the military in Burma, mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country, which is also known as Myanmar. Eighteen-year-old Johnny Htoo's brother, Luther, was not mentioned in Wednesday's (July 26) announcement in Burma's government-produced New Light Of Myanmar newspaper.

The "ten-member armed group of God's Army, led by Johnny Tu [Htoo]," surrendered to soldiers in Burma's southeast Coastal Region Command camp. The 10 men abandoned a "base in the other country," it said, referring to Thailand. Johnny Htoo, and nine others, also gave up some assault rifles, ammunition, and a hand grenade. They "returned to the legal fold" on July 17, the report said without elaborating, an indication they received amnesty.

"They have done so, as they do not want to be bullied by other insurgent groups, [and they] realize the goodwill of the state, the people, and the Tatmadaw [military], and the endeavors of the government for national development, and want to take part in regional development tasks, living with their families and relatives with peace of mind," it said in convoluted English.

"There remain armed groups who want to follow suit," the paper claimed. Thousands of minority Karen, predominately Christians, have fled Burma during the past 50 years to squalid camps in Thailand's western jungle along the porous border. At their pinnacle six years ago, the Htoo twins were 12 years old and just a bit taller than their assault rifles.

They dazzled the international media by smoking tobacco-stuffed, Burmese "cheroot" cigars, sporting shoulder-length black hair, and commanding up to 200 armed Karen insurgents at their Ka Mar Pa Law base in Burma, opposite Thailand's Ratchaburi province, 95 kilometers (60 miles) west of Bangkok.

At that time, adult rebels in the God's Army said they believed the twins possessed animist and Christian powers to lead a guerrilla war and bestow protection, for the entire group, from bullets and land mines. The twins forbade squabbling, drugs, alcohol, foul language, and sloppiness among their rebels, who struggled to survive in the malaria-infested jungle.

God's Army began in 1997 during the near-defeat of the Karen National Union (KNU), a 4,000-man rebel group, which was hammered by Burma's military. According to a legend, KNU insurgents abandoned a village where the twins lived, but the brothers inspired local Karen men to successfully fight and protect their homes. As a result, poorly educated Karens hailed the twins as God-powered beings.

Burma denounced them as a terrorist wing of the KNU, because some KNU guerrillas reportedly joined the God's Army and supplied them with weapons. God's Army was also allied with another Karen splinter group, the Vigorous Burmese Students Warriors (VBSW), who seized Burma's embassy in Bangkok in October 1999, holding about 30 people for 25 hours. In that crisis, Thailand bowed to the VBSW's demand for safe passage to their jungle hideout along the border. Burma condemned the move, which marred relations between the two investment-linked, Buddhist-majority countries.

Three months later, in January 2000, 10 God's Army guerrillas took over a Thai hospital in Ratchaburi town, trapping hundreds of patients, doctors, nurses and visitors. The 10 God's Army rebels demanded the Thai army stop bombing Karen positions along the frontier. Thai officials denied bombarding Karen civilians, and said Bangkok shelled the border as a "warning" to Karen guerrillas not to stray into Thai territory.

The rebels also demanded Thailand open the border to allow hundreds of Burma's Karen civilians an escape route into Thailand, plus medical treatment for God's Army rebels recently wounded while fighting Burma's military. When negotiations failed, the Thai military assaulted the hospital and killed all 10 men. At least eight Thai security forces were injured in the assault, and four patients died from illnesses, unable to be attended by doctors during the 24-hour siege.

The twins were not at the scene, but their God's Army was no longer allowed to romp along the border. In January 2001, the twins, emaciated, turned themselves over to Thai security forces. They abandoned the Karens' goal of an autonomous or independent homeland, in exchange for permission to stay in Thailand, where they revealed themselves as scrawny, confused, Bible-carrying youngsters, with normal red tongues. It was not immediately clear why Johnny Htoo returned in July to Burma and surrendered to the military regime.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. He received Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism's Foreign Correspondents Award.

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