Just What's With These Teenybopper Terrorists?

The sight of 12-year-old twin insurgents may be shocking, but children's armies are in fact common in Southeast Asia.

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Twelve-year-old twin terrorists toking on stogies as they order up a hospital siege? That may sound a little far-fetched even in the fevered imagination of the action-movie genre, but it was probably the most compelling detail of the hostage drama that ended in a bloodbath in Thailand Monday. In a surprise attack the Thai army freed 500 hostages and killed 10 members of the self-styled "God's Army," but the more shocking image for Western audiences may have been the photographs of the organization's leaders, Luther and Johnny Htoo. The boys are fundamentalist Christians who believe they are immunized against bullets and land mines by mystical powers and have built a mostly teenaged army of some 200 among a Burmese ethnic group, the Karen, which has long been in conflict with the Burmese government. The impish insurgents allegedly built their following by sneaking into a village controlled by the Burmese military and killing several soldiers. "There's nothing new about child warriors in Southeast Asia," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "A number of the region's insurgencies have been recruiting young boys for many years."

Although Thailand has traditionally turned something of a blind eye to Burmese dissidents operating out of its territory, the rebels may have pushed their luck. "There's no love lost in Thailand for the Burmese government, and the Thais have generally been sympathetic to the Karens," says Dowell. "Many people were surprised when they chose to resolve the hostage standoff through force, because they tended to negotiate in the past. This may be a case of the Thai government saying 'Enough is enough.'" After all, just three months ago Thailand was embarrassed by a hostage drama at the Burmese embassy, and ended up granting a group allied with God's Army safe passage after negotiating an end to the crisis. If the pint-sized terrorists plan to wreak havoc, Thailand wants to make sure they don't do it on the Thai side of the border.