Little Lords Of The Jungle

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To the Karen, they were deities. To the Thais, they were demons. But when they staggered down from the mountains of Burma (now known as Myanmar) at dusk last Tuesday, Johnny and Luther Htoo bore neither miracles nor M-16s, just Bibles in their knapsacks. The tiny teenage twins and leaders of the mysterious rebel force known as God's Army approached a company of Thai soldiers and asked for sanctuary. Whisked to a police compound in the nearby town of Suan Phung, they soon found themselves exchanging bewildered stares with Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and a dozen of Thailand's top generals. As Chuan inspected his prizes, he gently stroked the boys' lice-ridden locks. "He totally demystified them," says Sunai Phasuk, of Forum Asia, a human-rights group. In Thailand, where people still crawl before royalty, "you don't pat a god on the head."

God's Army shot to prominence almost a year ago when 10 rebels from the group's camp stormed a hospital in the Thai town of Ratchaburi, taking 500 patients and staff members hostage. They were demanding that the Thai military stop shelling their mountain and that doctors treat their wounded. Witnesses said Thai commandos executed the 10 after they surrendered. The bloodshed briefly focused the world's attention on the strange tales seeping from the Burmese jungle. Although the rifle-toting, 12-year-old leaders had never ventured more than a few miles from their base on Kersay Doh, or God's Mountain, their photos flashed around the world. The two became instant objects of fascination and fear. Johnny and Luther had long been legends, however, in the hills of Burma and the refugee camps in Thailand.

The Karen have been fighting for independence from military dictators in Rangoon for a half-century; by 1997 their rebellion was near collapse. Most Karen fighters fled, but not Johnny and Luther. Leading a half-dozen rebels, the stories go, they beat back entire companies of Burmese soldiers. Their followers swore they had magic powers and were impervious to bullets. For a desperate people, the boys became messiahs. At the police station, they seemed anything but saviors. Shorn of their weapons and fatigues, they appeared to be scrawny, stunted children smoking Thai cigarettes and munching on shortbread cookies. So what were they really?

"They're just kids," said General Surayud Chulanont, commander in chief of the Thai army, after meeting them. "We think they may have been used as fronts by older rebels." But at least one Karen elder gives them credit. "They really did defeat the Burmese with just a handful of men," he says. Karen Christian priests, who also had frequent contact with God's Army, confirmed the twins' exploits. If the boys were natural-born fighters, it was clearly in the interests of their band to elevate them to something more.

It was Surayud who ensnared the boys, engaging a group of Karen elders to persuade God's Army to talk to the government, slowly building contacts between the two sides. The strategy seemed to be working, until New Year's Eve when the rebels got into a dispute with a group of drunken Thai villagers and opened fire. The slaying of the six Thais was the death knell for God's Army. The Thai public demanded retribution. A combined force of soldiers, police and border-patrol units cut off the rebels' supply routes to Thailand, hoping to starve them out. Though the guerrillas managed to slip through the net, hunting deer and monkeys for food, the mood among them had changed. A Burmese army unit was less than three miles away, suggesting that the government in Rangoon might be planning to hit the Karen hard. The noose was tightening. The rebels did not want to be killed by the Burmese but did not know whether to trust the Thais. With coaxing from the elders, the boys decided to try. The slow walk to Thailand, however, was a long leap of faith.

Johnny and Luther will most probably be allowed to live with their mother, who has been residing in a Thai refugee camp, Thai authorities said. Meanwhile, not all of God's Army have been cast down from the mountain. About 30 rebels still roam the jungle. Refugees still walk over the border and hide in Burma's forests, fleeing Rangoon's soldiers. Some Karen refuse to believe the twins are finished. They say the boys will grow strong again and return to vanquish their foes. The Karen are a people still in need of a savior. And so in the mist-covered mountains of the Thai-Burma border, many will be praying for the second coming of Johnny and Luther Htoo.