Surrender of 'God's Army' bodes ill for ethnic Karen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am

The surrender of Johnny Htoo, an infamous, cigar-smoking, puritanical Christian guerilla, has brought to an end a curious chapter in the ethnic Karen minority's struggle for independence in Myanmar.

For nearly a decade the young rebel leader and his twin brother, Luther, inspired a small band of Karen fighters to resist the Myanmese army at a time when the Karen's guerilla army was being forced to retreat from its strongholds in the face of a major military onslaught.

The brothers, who lived in a remote and isolated village, found their place in history when photographs of the grubby, long-haired recluses - then 12 years old - smoking cheroots and adeptly handling M-16 rifles taller than themselves, were flashed across the international media.

The unlikely heroes had by then gathered a force of more than 200 men and children around them in their new base at Ka Mar Pa Law, vowing to fight the Myanmese army until their death.

Their followers believed the boys were demi-gods and invincible. 'Bullets bounce off them and they turn invisible when they are fired upon,' one of their supporters said. Both boys had assumed the rank of colonel.

In an interview several years ago, Luther claimed he had 250,000 invisible soldiers at his command, while Johnny had 150,000.

As a result of the austere and Christian lifestyle imposed on their followers by the two teenagers, their group was soon dubbed God's Army.

They demanded their followers abstain from sexual intercourse, drugs, alcohol, and eating eggs or pork, and refrain from swearing. But they were chain-smokers and loved playing ball games when not venturing out on their armed raids.

Many of the ethnic Karen along the border with Thailand were converted to Christianity more than a century ago during British rule. The boys' parents were Christian fundamentalists, and their sons were soon seen as disciples of God. But the twins developed a mystical reputation in keeping with the region's animist and cult traditions.

In the mid-90s the army launched what they saw as a final assault against the Karen National Union (KNU), which had been fighting for autonomy from the majority Burmans since the British left.

Karen guerillas found it hard to guard the villagers who had relied on them for protection for decades.

When the army pushed towards the twins' village in 1997, the Karen soldiers fled saying they could no longer defend them.

After their home was overrun, the 12-year-old boys, armed with guns and hand grenades, sneaked back into the village and opened fire, killing several soldiers. So was born the legend of the invincible twins. 'They have special powers,' a young Karen who grew up in the same village as the twins said several years ago.

'God sent these two leaders to rescue all Karens,' said veteran ethnic guerilla Su Bia, who had joined their troupe.

The twins rose to international notoriety six years ago when their supporters seized a hospital in Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. It also spelt the end of the boys' reign in the jungle.

The Myanmese army launched an all-out assault on their base, forcing them to surrender to the Thai authorities, who had also vowed to capture them. They were placed in a refugee camp and reunited with their parents. Little was heard of them since, though Thai media reported last year they were now clean-cut with a passion for modern music.

Johnny's surrender, along with nine other members of God's Army, to the Myanmese authorities has given Yangon a major publicity coup in their bid to get the KNU to give up their armed struggle.

While the fate of Johnny and God's Army now seems sealed - there is no news on the whereabouts of Luther - the future of the Karen is far less certain.

Time is running out for the Karen, as the army has stepped up its campaign against them in the past six months.

'Most of them are suffering from disease and don't have enough food or water,' said an international aid worker. 'We fear many may die in the coming months as a result.'