God, What an army
29 January 2000
Ratchaburi - AT DAWN on January 24th, ten armed young men slipped across
Thailand's border with Myanmar and hijacked a bus. They seemed confused,
unsure of where to go, and anxious to get medical attention for comrades
who had been injured in several days of fighting with Myanmar government
troops. Eventually the hijackers descended on a hospital in the
provincial capital of Ratchaburi. They stormed the emergency room and
surgical ward, trapping inside about 900 patients and staff.
It soon emerged that the kidnappers were members of God's Army, a
fundamentalist Christian group based in a region of Myanmar populated by
ethnic Karen. The group had broken away from the main Karen guerrilla
organisation, which has long been fighting for a separate state. The
figureheads of this splinter group are 12-year-old cheroot-smoking
twins, Johnny and Luther Htoo. The black-tongued twins, who are supposed
to possess divine fighting powers, stayed in the jungle with other
Among the group, however, were three or more of the student rebels who
had seized the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok last October. They had been
set free in return for releasing their hostages unharmed. They had taken
refuge with God's Army in Myanmar.
In the confusion within the hospital, many of the hostages managed to
escape, and several policemen were able to enter, disguised as patients
or doctors. One genuine doctor successfully completed a brain operation
on a ten-year-old child.
When the group announced their demands, it became clear that, in
addition to wanting doctors to treat their wounded, they were angry with
Thailand's soldiers. Since the hostage-taking at the embassy, the Karen
and other rebel groups fighting Myanmar's military regime have been
prevented from using Thailand as a sanctuary. Thai forces have shelled
God's Army positions to keep the guerrillas inside Myanmar.
Within 24 hours, the hostage drama was over. Thai commandos moved in and
killed all ten rebels. Some were shot in the head at close range, though
they offered no resistance, said some of the hostages. Thai military
officials denied that the kidnappers had been murdered.
The fierce military response was very different from that in the embassy
incident, for several reasons. The first was outrage at the group's
capture of a hospital. The embassy was technically part of Myanmar and
the gunmen who took it over were described by a Thai minister at the
time as "students fighting for democracy". But this group was seen as
rag-tag jungle fighters. Thailand's prime minister, Chuan Leekpai,
described the incident as an ungrateful act by a group that had been
taking shelter on Thai soil.
Another reason was deterrence. The Thai government took a chance when it
released the hostage-takers last October, hoping it would not provoke
more incidents. Now that it has, a firm stand was needed. "It is a
statement from Thailand that you can no longer do this kind of thing to
us," said the prime minister's national security adviser, Prasong
Soonsiri. The incident seems to have had some effect across the border:
on January 27th, the main Karen guerrilla group announced it had a new,
more moderate leader.
Yet it is far from an end to Thailand's Myanmar-inspired troubles.
Thailand must still cope with the 100,000 or so refugees and about half
a million illegal workers who have crossed into the country from
Myanmar. It has also witnessed a recent flood of cheap drugs from next
door. The Thai authorities used to see the ethnic insurgents that
operated along the border as something of a buffer against Myanmar's
security forces. Clearly, no more. Thailand is taking firm control of
the frontier. And those Thais who want to engage the Myanmar regime in a
more direct manner will have been strengthened in their convictions.