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Raid routs Burma's 12-year-old black-tongued twins

By John Aglionby, Sydney Morning Herald
26 January 2000

God's Army, the Burmese rebels whose members died early yesterday in a blaze of gunfire from Thai security forces, are motivated by a powerful cocktail of Christian militancy, decades of ethnic persecution, and fanatical loyalty to their child commanders, Johnny and Luther Htoo.

It was not known last night whether the 12-year-old cigar-smoking and gun-wielding twins were among the nine rebels killed when Thai forces stormed the hospital where more than 500 hostages had been held for 24 hours. A 10th rebel was reportedly killed trying to flee from the area. However some of the bodies were reported to be small and childlike.

The rebels, wearing military fatigues and balaclavas and brandishing automatic rifles, had planted booby traps around the hospital in Ratchaburi, 120 kilometres west of Bangkok.

They had threatened to blow it up if the Thai army did not meet their demands.

For the foot soldiers of God's Army, the semi-literate Htoo twins, who are barely taller than their automatic rifles, have mystical powers and are virtual deities.

The twins, who hold the rank of colonel, both have a black tongue, which in the Mon and Karen traditions is taken to be a sign of divinity.

The pair are believed to offer their fighters divine protection in a crusade that blends elements of the Old Testament with Lord of the Flies.

The legend that has grown around them was planted three years ago during a massive Burmese military offensive against the Karen tribes to which the God's Army guerillas belong.

The tribes, whom the Burmese authorities have consistently persecuted for their Christian beliefs and desire for ethnic autonomy, inhabit the mountainous jungle along the border between Burma and Thailand.

Village after village was destroyed as hundreds of Karen fighters were killed, dozens of women raped and thousands fled in the face of overwhelming odds.

Only two people, so the legend goes, stood their ground. Johnny and Luther - then aged nine - refused to flee and instead launched a counter attack, killing numerous Burmese soldiers as they overran a fortified military position.

No-one appears to know how much truth there is to the story. But the 200 or so fighters of God's Army are convinced that Johnny and Luther are so invincible that they can dodge bullets and step on landmines without setting them off.

In an interview last month with Associated Press Television News (APTN), the boys said they had lost count of how many Burmese soldiers they had killed.

The interviewers were struck by their lack of emotion.

"I have never cried," Luther said. "Why would a man cry?" He then let off a few rounds from his AK-47.

Despite being twins, the boys are far from identical. "They are very different in character," said Jerry Harmer of APTN.

"Johnny looks like a girl. He has an angelic feminine face and long black hair. Luther, meanwhile, is a psycho. He has an unpredictable, volatile character. The front part of his head is shaved and the back part has long straggly hair."

Their father is among the boys' proudest disciples. He claims to have had a vision before they were born in which it was revealed to him that his sons would grow up to be great leaders. Their mother's whereabouts are unknown.

The boys command a guerilla army formed partly of child soldiers. "It's weird to see this gaggle of smiley, laughing children going round with guns," Harmer said.

The third-in-command is even younger than the twins, a boy who according to some reports earned the title Black Tongue after suffering a deforming tropical illness.

All three boys are heavy smokers, but otherwise they lead a highly regulated life.

Alcohol, swearing, pork and eggs are among the items the young fundamental Christians have banned. There are also thought to be strict rules about liaisons with the opposite sex.

While the boys were not thought to be among the hostage takers at the hospital, observers of the God's Army detected their stamp on the guerillas' demands.

Top of the list of five demands was that Thailand should grant the Karen people a refuge from the relentless onslaught of the Burmese army. They claimed that far from supporting the Karen insurgency, the Thai army had shelled their compounds, killing up to 300 people.

It is not known who finances the God's Army. "They're probably existing on very little," said Harmer.

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