'GOD'S ARMY' —A RAG-TAG KAREN MILTANT GROUP
The God’s Army was a rag tag Karen army made up largely of children and young adults, led by 12-year-old twins Luther and Johnny Hitoo, that rose to international attention in the late 1999 and 2000 after they withstood an assault by Myanmar forces and were involved in a pair of hostage-taking situations in Thailand. They were regarded as an offshoot of the Karen Nation Union (KNU) and have nominal links to Christianity. [Source: AP]
God’s Army consisted of about 200 members, ranging from children as young as 8 to young adults. Many members of group where youngsters s and teenagers with dirty military uniforms and runny noses. Some joined after losing family members who were killed in government raids on Karen villages. Those who didn’t follow the rules of the group were often told to leave.
God's Army broke away in 1997 from the Karen National Union, a guerrilla group which has been fighting for independence from the former Burma for more than five decades. The Army was well known as a haven of fringe anti-junta elements, including five dissidents who took over the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok for a day in 1999. God’s Army was attacked inside Myanmar by government security forces. Some 1,000 refugees fled into Thailand.
In the aftermath of a 2000 hospital siege, in which Thai commandos killed 10 guerrillas connected with the God’s Army, some commentators suggested the twins could have stepped straight from the pages of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
Myanmar 'God's Army' Twins
The 12-year-old twins who led the God’s Army in 1999 were the cute, long-haired Johnny Hitoo and his tough-looking, chain-smoking brother Luther. They were the illiterate, barely coherent sons of a peasant farmer. They became the heads of an insurgent group when the Myanmar government launched an offensive in 1997 against the Karen National Union.
Luther shaved his eyebrows, wore a “Love” tattoo on his arm, and had scary mood swings and a hacking cough obtained from chain smoking cheroots and Thai cigarettes. AP reporter Jason Bleibtreu wrote, “He never were a shirt, instead wrapping himself in a blanket to ward off the damp. There was something alarming about his eyes, deep-set and slightly off-focus, like someone living on the street too long, a distant state reminiscent of traumatized soldiers.
Johnny appeared to be the leader. He looked about half his age and half his size when he was photographed at the age of 11. Bleibtreu wrote, “With an angelic smile, Johnny claimed to have killed “countless” government soldiers...Between the two, Johnny is brighter, more talkative and outgoing.
There seemed to be a rivalry between the twins. “Luther was moody and looked like he was a little bit upset that Johnny was getting the attention....When I started paying attention to Johnny, Luther got up and left and was in a bad mood,” Bleibtreu wrote.
The twins’ closest advisor was Soon Lim Dam, a, boy with a black tongue, lips and hands. His followers thought his blacked body parts showed he had mystical powers. Doctors who were told his condition believe the colorations were more likely the result of a disease. Soon said he was 100 years old. He acted as the twins spokesman but much of what he said was incomprehensible.
Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “The legend of the twins began to form in 1997, when Myanmar troops entered their village during a sweep of Karen territory. At the time, the rebel Karen National Union was in sharp decline. "We had to defend ourselves because we didn't like anyone to hurt us," Luther recalled. "We love our motherland, so we chose to fight. We got seven rifles from the KNU and there were seven of us. We used them to fight against the Burmese army. We prayed before we fought, and then we won." [Source: Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 2, 2013]
They dubbed themselves God's Army. The boys were rambunctious, but strict discipline was maintained, as well as a rigorous Christian routine. There was no liquor in their village and a church service was held at least once a day. Journalists were amazed when they traveled to their small village of Ka Mar Pa Law, far from any towns or even paved roads. Video showed the twins living what looked like a kid's pirate fantasy, shooting tropical fruit off the trees and being worshipped by adult followers who carried them around on their shoulders.
Probably the most famous image of the twins was shot by Associated Press photographer Apichart Weerawong when they were 12. The tightly cropped portrait shows Luther with shaved forelocks and raised brows, insouciantly puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette. Johnny, with neatly parted and combed long hair, softly feminine face and a sad, soulful gaze, stands behind his brother's right shoulder.
History of God’s Army Twins
During the Myanmar government’s offensive in against the Karen National Union in 1997, the story goes, Karen fighters were being crushed until the twins arrived and led a series a counter attacks that drove the Myanmar army out of Karen territory.
A Thai missionary who knows the God’s Army well told Time, “At one point there were just seven of them surrounded by Myanmar troops. Somehow they fought their way out. Some believe an army of spirits helped them.” After there initial successes the twin’s group was joined by others and eventually they broke off from the KNU.
At about the time the Burmese troops began their assault Johnny began hearing voices. Before that he had been a normal kid. After hearing the voices he is said to have started telling the Karens to repent and that their hardships was the product of their sinfulness. He drew the attention of local Baptist preachers and attracted five volunteers who followed him and Luther to a raid on a Burmese army outpost, where they captured a large cache of weapons that were used to arm KNU fighters and volunteers who joined them.
As word got out about the twins’ exploits legends grew around them. A Thai scholar told Time, “When the soldiers died in the struggle against the Burmese, they moved backward, to the old gods. This idea of messiahs is common to people who are oppressed---and it is very common in this region.”
Special Powers of the God’s Army Twins
Various magical powers were attributed to the twins. It was said that they could predict danger; that bullets could not harm them; that they could fire rifles with the powers of concentration; and that anyone who walked with them would not be harmed even if they stepped on a land mine. Johnny said that if he found himself in a pinch he could summon 5000 warrior spirits to help him. One Karen villager told Time, “They have special powers. I am sure they won’t be killed in battle. They are able to control a large number of people. That’s why I believe in them.”
There were stories that the twins were reincarnations of Karen heroes and they commanded a force of 400,000 “invisible” soldiers. They were often carried through the jungles by their followers. One fighter told the New York Times that Johnny once jumped into a stream and emerged an old man with white hair. The soldiers with him were afraid. Johnny told them not be and changed back into a boy. In other stories, he gave out magic bullets that turned into ten bullets after they were fired.
According to Karen tradition, black tongues are a sign of divinity and many followers believed the cheroot-smoking twins were immune to bullets and landmines and had been sent to save the movement after it was all but wiped out by major government offensives.
The twins said they are Baptists. Some regarded them as fundamentalist Christians. They and their followers followed strict rules prohibiting gambling, swearing, consumption of pork, alcohol. drugs, milk and eggs. Reportedly anyone who didn’t follow the rules were ostracized.
Many Karens were not convinced. They believed to the twins were just ordinary boys who had been manipulated by adults. One Christian Karen told Time, “They aren’t God’s Army, they are Satan’s Army. God has no children with guns.” On several occasions the twins said they missed their mother.
Lifestyle of the God’s Army
The stronghold for the God’s Army was a jungle camp in Ka Mar Pa Law, Myanmar, an isolated area on “God’s Mountain” reached by an 11-hour trek from the nearest town in Thailand. The village was made up some ramshackle huts. There was no electricity or running water.
The groups generally wanted to be left alone. A dwarf acted as a guard. The village was surrounded by a mine field. Whenever strangers approached they were told, “Don’t come any farther or you’ll die!”
The members were often hungry. A typical dinner was rice with jungle frog meat. But that wasn’t always the care. Some villages describe feasts in the old days with giant lizards, deer, monkey and mountain vegetables. “We ate three times a day, instead of two, and there singing and dancing all night.”
The God’s Army was heavily armed. They played with guns as if they were toys and said they killed many Burmese soldiers. For fun they played with William Tell with a papaya instead of an apple and an automatic rife instead of a crossbow. Four Thai soldiers died in a God's Army booby trap.
Violent Hospital Raid in Thailand Leaves 10 God’s Army Members Dead
In January 2000, heavily armed members of the God’s Army raided a hospital in Ratchaburi, a Thai town, near the Burmese border, and took 700 people hostage, many of them women and children. They demanded that the Thai government provide medicine and doctors to treat Karen injured fighting Myanmar troops. They arrived at the hospital on a hijacked bus and picked the hospital after arguing among themselves on the bus.
At dawn, six truckloads of elite Thai commandos stormed the hospital, ending the 22-hour standoff there, killing all 10 of the insurgents, who were aged from teenagers to men in their thirties. Their bodies were displayed proudly by Thai authorities, who said they had been killed after a one-hour fire fight. Miraculously, none of the hostages were killed or hurt. The only other deaths were four paitients who died from lack of proper medical attentions. The twins were not at the scene.
Afterwards, several of the hostages described the insurgents as “armed men with soft hearts.” They said the hostage-takers had given up and were killed by the Thai security forces after they surrendered. One hospital worker told the Bangkok Post, the insurgents “were shot in the head after they had been told to undress and kneel down.” Photographs of the dead men showed them with their hands tied and gunshot wounds in the back of their heads. This hardly fit the description of men killed in a gun battle. There also weren’t many bullets in the building.
The God’s Army first came to people’s attention in October 1999, when they took in a group that called themselves the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors, who had stormed he Burmese Embassy on Bangkok and took 26 people hostage to protest military rule in Myanmar. They were allowed y escape in exchange for freeing the hostages after 26 hour.
End of God’s Army
Two days after the January 2000 raid, the Myanmar Army, aided by Thai forces, ousted the God’s Army from their jungle camp in Ka Mar Pa Law, Myanmar. The group then went on the run, hiding out in villages on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border, and hunting monkeys and deer for food. As time went on the army became a group as followers left for refugee camps in Thailand.
While they were in the run, Thai authorities made contact with them through villagers that lived around their stronghold. Their demise was sewn when they got into a clash with some drunken Thai villagers and killed six of them, prompting Thai security forces to launch a campaign to capture them.
In January 2001, 14 members of the God’s Army, including the twins, surrendered to Thai authorities 200 meters within the Thai border near the Huay Sud Pass in Suan Phueng district. A Thai army official told AFP, “Troops on a border patrol this morning discovered a cache of weapons, including automatic rifles and bullets. After a closer search of the area, they found a group of 14, including four men, one woman, one girl, six boys and twins Johnny and Luther.”
The twins were found malnourished and weak, with lice in their hair and a Bible in their backpacks. They had approached the Thai soldiers for sanctuary and asked them for food. After their capture the twins were present to the Thai Prime Minister, who stroked their head to demystify them (in Southeast Asia you don’t touch the heads of deities). The twins were not prosecuted after they surrendered. They were reunited with their mother in a Thai refugee camp and allowed to live with her. There was a plan to resettle the twins in the United States. The twins said they were scared of living in the United States.
Surrender of Myanmar 'God's Army' Twins
In July 2006, Johnny Htoo and a handful of fellow rebels surrendered at a military command in southeastern Myanmar. The reports did not mention Luther. According to Reuters: “A black-tongued child soldier who commanded a small Myanmar guerrilla group called God's Army has surrendered to the military government, state media said. Militia leader Johnny Htoo, who was 12 when God's Army guerrillas held hundreds of people hostage at a Thai hospital in 2000, had left a refugee camp in Thailand and "returned to the legal fold", the Myanmar Ahlin paper said. He brought with him nine other fighters and a small assortment of weapons, including assault rifles, it added. The paper, an official mouthpiece of Yangon's military junta, did not say anything about the whereabouts of Johnny's twin brother, Luther, co-commander of the ragtag Christian militia. [Source: Reuters, July 27, 2006]
Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “In 2006, Myanmar state television reported that Johnny and eight of his God's Army comrades had turned themselves in because "they could not put up with the bullying of fellow rebels" and realized "the goodwill of the government." Luther said the truth is that Johnny was lured back to Myanmar by false promises of work. A "surrender" was staged for TV, he said, with uniforms and a handover of weapons that didn't belong to them. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 2, 2013]
Fate of the 'God's Army'
Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “ Luther tried to learn more about what happened to dozens of his comrades who disappeared after surrendering. "Their wives and children have been waiting," he said. "It's been 13 years. I think all of them are dead." They may have been victims of a calamitous turn in God's Army's fortunes that came after it became enmeshed with an even more fringe Myanmar anti-government group. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 2, 2013]
The so-called Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors seized the Myanmar Embassy in the Thai capital, Bangkok, in 1999. After a short siege, Thai officials arranged a getaway by helicopter for them to the Myanmar border area where God's Army was based. Johnny and Luther took them in. But the student warriors were targets of two countries, Myanmar and Thailand, which lost face from the embassy takeover despite resolving it peacefully. Reportedly, Thailand began shelling the twins' village to help corner the embassy raiders.
Shambles turned to disaster when the student warriors and some God's Army members crossed back into Thailand and seized a provincial hospital in Ratchaburi in 2000. By Luther's account, student warriors and some members of God's Army went to the hospital to ask for medicine and doctors to help people wounded by the shelling. He did not explain why they went armed. In the end, no hostages at the hospital were hurt, but all 10 attackers were shot dead by Thai authorities — some after surrendering, according to witnesses.
God's Army quickly fell, and the boys surrendered at their village. They were treated well, but their comrades, who lacked the shield of international publicity, may not have been. "They were separated into groups of men, women and children. The Thai soldiers took 55 men with them and said they would be brought to work for the soldiers," Luther told members of the Lawyers Council of Thailand as he sought their advice on tracking down the men. "Since that day, no one ever saw them again."
Fate of the 'God's Army' Twins
Luther and Johnny stayed together at a refugee camp in Thailand, but later became separated.
Now Luther is helping Johnny seek ways to stay with their mother and sister, who now live in New Zealand. "But I will have talk to a lot of people to make that happen," Luther said. Their father lives in another Thai refugee camp. The AP interview marked the last time Luther and Johnny would see each other before Luther returned to Sweden. As the brothers parted, Johnny's eyes appeared to well with tears. "C'mon, real men don't cry," Luther told his brother. He promised to return to see him next year.
Myanmar 'God's Army' Twins Reunite
Reporting from Sangkhlaburi, Thailand , Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “When they were kids, Johnny and Luther Htoo were bulletproof and invulnerable to land mines — or so went the story that briefly made them famous as hundreds of guerrillas followed and even worshipped them in the southeastern jungles of Myanmar. Today, well over a decade later, their "God's Army" is no more, and the twins' greatest accomplishment may be that both are still alive. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 2, 2013]
Luther lives in Sweden. Johnny remains at an unofficial refugee camp inside Thailand, not far from where the brothers were sent after they surrendered to Thai authorities in 2001. Now 25, Johnny has hopes of reuniting with family in New Zealand, and Luther has questions about their former comrades that may never be answered.
Members of their Karen ethnic group who have long sought autonomy in Myanmar have laid down their arms since a military dictatorship gave way to a nominally civilian government in 2011. Last month, during his first trip back to Thailand since leaving for Sweden in 2009, Luther said he would fight only if his people were hurt again. "It's not fun to fight anymore, now that I'm afraid to die. No one wants to fight unless they have to, you know," Luther said.
A joint interview with the AP last month highlighted the very different lives the Htoo brothers have led since then. Luther appeared almost chic in a traditional Karen blouse over jeans, one silver hoop earring on his left ear and two on his right. Johnny wore an old button-down shirt several sizes too big, an evident charity hand-me-down. He looked weary and nervous.
Luther now lives in Götene, a town 335 kilometers (208 miles) west of Stockholm, where he studied economics, history and other liberal arts subjects and has worked several jobs, including caregiver for the elderly. While in Sweden, he married a Karen woman from another tribe and had a child with her, but they later got divorced, the child staying with the mother. "I like Sweden but it's very cold. Cold and snow, but I like it there because the country is peaceful," Luther said. "There's no one shooting at each other and no one hurting each other." Johnny eventually settled down to work as a rice farmer but returned less than a year ago to the refugee camp in Thailand where he had stayed with Luther. He was shy during the interview and inclined to defer to his brother.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014