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Child soldiers born of conflict and isolation

Craig Skehan, Sydney Morning Herald
29 January 2000

"They come from another planet - planet Burma," one human rights worker said of the God's Army insurgents who took hundreds of people hostage at a Thai hospital this week.

The siege, which ended when Thai commandos stormed the building and killed the 10 God's Army gunmen, was a tragic reminder of the psychological trauma and physical misery caused to children dislocated by conflict.

Photographs of the killed insurgents showed that some of them were adolescents, and the ethnic Karen God's Army behind the hostage-taking is led by twin 12-year-old boys Johnny and Luther Htoo.

Aid workers and human rights groups familiar with the God's Army say they live such an isolated existence in a remote jungle camp that they have little understanding of the realities of the outside world.

One school of thought is that the students, some of whom are thought to be suffering from various degrees of mental illness after long years in exile, coaxed the naive Karens into the hospital attack.

In Burma, the abuse of children and young teenagers has been a hallmark of decades of political and ethnic conflicts against the country's repressive military rulers.

The regional director of UNICEF, Mr Kul Gautam, told a Bangkok conference on children's rights this week that the hospital tragedy in Ratchaburi underscored "how the anger and frustrations of displacement can so terribly manifest themselves".

"Although they did not take part in the incident, to think that the twins might have helped plan or played a role in so desperate an act is heartbreakingly sad."

He said reports suggested the behaviour of Johnny and Luther was a "mix of classic battle fatigue and childish playfulness".

"The twins have been fighting against Myanmar [Burmese] soldiers since they were nine and they have 'lost count' of how many they have killed," Mr Gautam said.

"This should stir moral outrage in each and every one of us and move us to take all the action necessary to protect other children from such a fate."

Mr Gautam pointed to a growing problem of internally displaced people in Asia as well as cross-border refugees.

"There are displaced children who face the threat of death or dismemberment due to conflict or landmines, the ever-present silent killers," he said. "Other displaced children have been, as the incident in Ratchaburi clearly showed, coerced by adults into becoming child soldiers and taking up arms themselves."

Earlier this week it was announced in Geneva an agreement had been reached on a new international accord prohibiting the use of child soldiers in war.

The accord officially raised the age for involvement in combat from 15 to 18, but that means little in places such as Burma and Sri Lanka where the use of child soldiers is commonplace.

The cigar-smoking Luther and Johnny have been the subject of international publicity, including reports that their followers believe they have divine powers.

However, the secessionist Karen National Union, from which the more militant God's Army split in 1997, believes the power and influence of the twins have waned.

This school of thought holds that others manipulate the boys to gain publicity and support.

"When we think of the fate of the twin boys, Johnny and Luther, how their so-called bravery and prowess is cynically glamourised, I know we all feel compassion for them," Mr Gautam said.

"We should be angry, angry with their adult manipulators."

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