Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Daniel Lovering, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, January 19, 2001
Suan Phung, Thailand — With a cigarette clutched in his tiny right hand, Luther Htoo walked barefoot out of the dark confines of a Thai police facility, flashing a tired smile at guards towering over him with assault rifles pressed against their chests.
Behind him walked Johnny, his diminutive twin brother, and other ragged youngsters in grubby T-shirts and shaggy hair. All are members of a militia group of Burmese child soldiers called God’s Army that has been on the run for a year.
Led by the Htoo brothers, 17 members of God’s Army have surrendered this week to authorities in Suan Phung, 100 miles west of Bangkok. Luther and Johnny, who have been known to shoulder M-16 rifles almost as tall as they are, appear to be between 12 and 15 years old. Many of their followers seem to be about the same age.
God’s Army is a 3-year-old offshoot of the Karen National Union (KNU), the main rebel army of Burma’s ethnic Karen minority, which has fought the hard- line military government in Rangoon for decades. Members of the ragtag guerrilla group had believed the 5-foot-tall Htoo twins wielded mystical powers that made them invincible on the battlefield.
But Thai border troops discovered the youngsters weren’t invincible against starvation. After their supplies from Thailand were cut off and their weapons seized in recent weeks, the depleted rebel group simply gave up. Earlier this year, the boys’ jungle headquarters at Ka Mar Pa Law, just across the border from Thailand, had fallen to Burmese government forces.
Johnny and the chain-smoking Luther seemed relieved to be abandoning their military mission. They munched on cookies provided by the police as their arms were held by soldiers who whisked them between buildings at the border station.
“They all surrendered unarmed,” said Gen. Surayud Chulanon, head of the Thai army. “We searched until we found an area where they were hiding guns, and we made contact until they surrendered.”
Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. The Karen are the largest of several ethnic groups that live astride the nation’s borders with Thailand and China. Others include the Kachin, Karenni, Shan, Mon and Wa. Each has fielded a guerrilla army at some point, though most have negotiated cease-fire agreements in recent years.
The KNU once controlled a huge swath of eastern Burma, but has lost ground steadily over the last decade. It now depends on retreating to Thai territory for refuge.
God’s Army was formed after an assault on the twins’ village, when the Htoos allegedly inspired a daring counterattack. That rare victory gave birth to a local legend about their mystical powers. Like many Karen, the soldiers in God’s Army are fundamentalist Christians in a predominantly Buddhist country.
Thai military officials had been searching for the rebels since New Year’s Eve, after the group raided a nearby village, killing six Thais.
God’s Army staged a larger cross-border attack at Ratchaburi last year when 10 guerrillas took over a hospital with the help of an allied rebel group, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors. They hoped to pressure Thailand to provide sanctuary for their civilian followers by holding 700 hostages. Thai forces killed all 10 rebels in an early morning raid.
Three of the God’s Army members in custody have confessed to carrying out the bloody New Year’s Eve raid and have been charged with murder and robbery, police Maj. Gen. Chalong Sonjai said.
Following the raid, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai pledged to track down and punish those responsible. On Wednesday, he flew by helicopter to this rural village to see the young rebels, whose story received a brief spate of news attention last year. He held up Johnny’s left arm and stared at a tattoo before moving on to Luther, who touched his palms together and bowed in a traditional Thai greeting.
“We have succeeded in finding them,” Chuan said after shaking hands and chatting with the heavily guarded children. “If someone was involved in a crime here, we will take legal action. The people of Ratchaburi will now have more peace.”
Thai military officials said they were able to convince the God’s Army members to surrender by promising them they would be treated fairly and that those not involved in the latest killings would not be punished.
But Gen. Surayud warned that “those responsible for killing Thais . . . will be prosecuted according to Thai law.”
The fate of the child soldiers is now in the hands of provincial leaders, who will determine whether or not the children qualify as refugees and can join the more than 100,000 other Karens in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The twins’ mother is rumored to be in one of the camps; their father’s whereabouts are unknown.
“Our first hope is to send the children back to their parents if possible,” Gen. Surayud said.
Even if they are not found to be directly responsible for the deaths of Thais, the Htoo boys could be extradited to Burma. “If Burma asks for their return, we will decide based on international law,” Ratchaburi provincial governor Komes Dangthongdee said.
By most accounts, the ranks of God’s Army have dwindled, and according to Thai authorities, only a handful of fighters are believed to be living close to family members along the border.
“I can’t confirm now that God’s Army is finished,” Gen. Surayud said. “We have to find more information, but I have heard that some have spread out and gone north.”
Sunant Kongying, a school teacher in Suan Phung, came to the border police station in hopes of catching a glimpse of the mysterious twins.
“I just wanted to see them,” she said. “I can’t believe they were behind everything. They are so young.”