Twins and their followers energize Burma rebels

Two 12-year-olds made headlines last week for their group's jaunt into Thailand. But little is known of their background.

Few have ever met twins Johnny and Luther Htoo. But the story of the 12-year-old brothers has brought new attention to the struggle of ethnic minorities who are fighting for independence on the border with Thailand. A group born out of desperation, the boys' "God's Army" rebels are a rag-tag force who make their home in the mountainous jungles of Burma.

God's Army's reputation far exceeds its military might. A mere 100 to 150 men are estimated to follow the two boys. While its exploits are attracting new followers, it's still just a radical fringe of the Karen National Union (KNU), the established group of rebels fighting for independence. "It looms large, but the image is larger than what it is," says Pornpimon Trichod, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Asian Studies.

Rebel movements are nothing new to the eastern reaches of Burma, called Myanmar by the military government, where the mainstream KNU has fought a succession of governments since the British withdrew in 1948. About 7 million ethnic Karen live in the nation of 47 million. Refugees say government troops regularly torch their villages, rape their women, and force survivors into unpaid labor. Karen account for about 90 percent of the 104,000 refugees now living in Thai camps.

In recent years, the once-powerful KNU has fallen on hard times. The KNU initially welcomed God's Army's energizing influence and it's military successes. But today the KNU also downplays its significance. "Since it's not politically organized and not in a wide area, I think [God's Army] may be temporary," says KNU chairman Saw Ba Thin.

Since 1995, when Myanmar troops overran the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw, the KNU fighting force has dropped from 15,000 to about 7,000, Mr. Saw Ba Thin said in a recent interview at a KNU safe house. The fall of Manerplaw foreshadowed another military defeat, this time near where the Htoo twins grew up.

On March 3, 1997, KNU fighters were abandoning their posts ahead of a brutal Myanmar offensive. Some 2,000 refugees massed at a village adjacent to the Thai border. The Thais had closed the frontier, so there was nowhere to go.

One survivor of that moment was Saw Kwe Htoo, a regional KNU chairman near God's Army's base, who is not related to the twins. He recounts that at the nadir of despair the Htoo twins, then just nine years old, told a local pastor that spirit warriors from a holy mountain told them to fight the encroaching Army.

"I think the pastor was the mastermind," says Saw Kwe Htoo, whom the twins approached for permission before launching their defensive. The pastor, named The Pe, helped the twins recruit their force and christened them "Jesus' Commandos." The group waylaid Myanmar troops in a noontime rout. The twins' legend was born.

In the ensuing months, the renamed God's Army carried out a series of successful ambushes on Myanmar troops. Although last week the KNU disavowed God's Army, they supplied the Htoos with their initial cache of arms.

During that formative period, Pastor The Pe fell out of favor. Although the twins' father lived in the camp, he has had little interaction with them. By all accounts, the twins were in total control.

One observer was Thierry Falise, a French photojournalist who stayed with God's Army for several days in the spring of 1998. If either of the Htoos was going to walk far, an older soldier would carry them, Mr. Falise says. These same fighters would seek the twins' blessings before a mission. Their word was law, which included a mishmash of credos - do not lie or commit adultery, do not eat pork or eggs, drink alcohol, or take drugs.

Still, Falise says that followers believed the Htoos were more messengers than divine beings. He describes their faith as a syncretism of Christianity, imported by 19th-century US Baptists, and animism.

Academics who have studied Burma's ethnic minorities say Karen are particularly receptive to messianic figures. Their folklore includes a king who came to liberate people from suffering, according to Ms. Pornpimon.

But messiahs they are not, or so the Burmese offensive is out to prove. "They must be scared to death right now," says Pornpimon. "After all, they are only children."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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