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From: E. Phillip Lim <webxity@CYBERWAY.COM.SG>
Subject: MM + TH: Is the news media making too much of Karen twins, Johnny and Luther?
Date: Friday, April 28, 2000 2:51 AM

Is the news media making too much of Karen twins, Johnny and Luther?

The Straits Times Interactive
11 April 2000

This boy insurgent just needs a big hug

Pictures of the child leaders of the Karen ethnic insurgency, God's Army have been splashed around the world. Tales of their apparent mystical powers have been told. In a first-time interview with the press since the January hospital raid, one of the 12-year-old twins, Luther Htoo, met an American journalist and spoke with The New York Times via satellite telephone.

SUAN PHUM (Thailand) -- Numerous legends and myths surround the 12-year-old twins who lead the God's Army. Between them, the twins say, they command 400,000 invisible soldiers.

If anybody shoots at them, the bullets just bounce off. And they can kill their enemies simply by pointing a rifle at the ground and concentrating really hard.

These might be the fantasies of a million schoolboys. But they are the beliefs that have led grown men into battle -- the legends that surround two child warriors who lead a ragged ethnic insurgency called God's Army, just across the border from Thailand in Myanmar.

Last week, one of the twins, Luther Htoo, left his mountain hideout with 15 of his soldiers to the hills along the border for his first interview since God's Army carried out a suicidal raid on a Thai hospital in January.

In a satellite telephone interview with The New York Times, he came across as a fidgety child with a childish voice who constantly turned to his followers for answers, asking them,"What should I say?"

Some of these answers were: He wants freedom for his people, the Karen minority. He is invulnerable to land mines and bullets. His favourite toys are real guns and ammunition. And he misses his parents.

On videotape he seemed more like a spoiled mascot than a general: He was carried through the woods on the shoulders of his men handed a lighted cheroot whenever he murmured, "I want a smoke," and tolerated benignly as he climbs in and out of the laps of the men he commands.

Clad in a camouflage fatigue shirt with a "US Army" patch, a "Love" tattoo on his arm, and a new short haircut, he turned away from time to time to double over in a wrenching smoker's cough. He seemed the unlikely leader of a separatist militant group.

Although Luther and his brother, Johnny, did not join the January raid, in which all 10 gunmen were shot dead after taking hostage of a hospital in the town of Ratchaburi, the twins became the objects of widespread curiosity abroad.

Now they are also wanted by the Myanmar military and shunned by other Karen rebels.

Like some other movements of this kind, God's Army lives by ascetic rules.

Alcohol, drugs and adultery are banned, along with milk, eggs and pork. Many Karens are Christian, and the twins are said to know the Bible by heart, although they have never studied it. Johnny was born first and goes everywhere first, according to a 45-year-old guerilla, even though Luther is regarded as having greater divine powers because he apparently has 250,000 invisible heavenly soldiers while Johnny has 150,000.

But Johnny commands more of the everyday kind of soldier. According to the guerilla, he has about 100 fighters protecting about 300 civilian followers, apparently including the boys' parents.

Luther has about 30 fighters, although in the interview he had to ask a subordinate for the number.

The boys' parents are simple farmers without magical powers, the guerilla said.

When the boys became leaders, their father put down his hoe and took up a gun to follow them.

In their Thursday meeting with Mr Jason Bleibtreu, an American photographer and video cameraman, the guerillas -- both boys and men -- had carried an assortment of M-16 and AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers.

They wore fatigues, shorts and a Donald Duck T-shirt along with black head scarves and rubber sandals. Some were barefoot.

Jason Bleibtreu said the soldiers seemed to treat the boy with a mixture of deference and patient parenting.

"They wouldn't allow him to act upon all of his whims," he said. "Sometimes he would want to ride on someone's shoulders. He would motion, lift me up, lift me up, and they would talk him out of it."

There seemed to be nothing extraordinary about this 12-year-old, apart perhaps from his childishness.

"What struck me most was he seemed to want attention, emotional contact," Mr Bleibtreu said.

"He wanted more hugs from his mother. He would sit down with me and put his hand on my shoulder. I got the feeling he wanted me to hug him.

"He would jump from soldier to soldier to their laps. The other boys weren't doing this. I felt sad, as a father: jeez, this kid wants a hug." -- New York Times

The Twins: The stuff of myths and legends

ONE of their followers, a 45-year-old guerilla, disclosed some of the myths that have built up around the Htoo twins deep in their jungle hideout.

Using the Karen term "bu," or "little brother," he referred to Luther as Bu Lu and to Johnny as Bu Joh.

"Once, when Bu Joh was bathing in a stream, he shouted to everybody, 'Look at me!' and he jumped into the water," said the anonymous guerrilla.

"When he came out he was an old man with long white hair and a white beard. All the soldiers were afraid, but he said, 'Don't be afraid: I'm Bu Joh! If you don't believe me, I'll change back.' And he jumped back into the water and came out as a boy again. I didn't see this myself, but more than 100 soldiers did see it."

In another incident that the guerilla said he did witness, Luther gave each fighter three magic bullets but admonished them to save them for emergencies.

One doubter disobeyed and shot one of the bullets at a tree. When he checked the tree, there were 10 bullet holes. "After that, he believed," the guerrilla said.

In a third incident, Luther sent his men into battle but remained where he was, pointing his rifle silently at the ground. Afterwards he asked how many of the enemy had been killed. Twenty, he was told. He then held up his rifle; exactly 20 bullets had disappeared from its magazine. -- New York Times

Copyright © 2000 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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