One twin, Luther, shaves the front of his head, has a 1,000-yard stare and experiences psychotic mood swings that make him bark sharp reprimands at his followers like a sergeant major. The other twin, Johnny, has long hair, effeminate features and a beguiling smile that he maintains even when firing off a few rounds from his rifle. Together, the legendary 12-year-old Htoo twins control God's Army, a nominally Christian force of 200 Karen hill tribesmen in the mountainous rainforests of Burma near the Thai border. They live at subsistence level, in a village that recalls the primitive settlement presided over by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. They have no electricity or telephones. They are revered as messiahs by their followers, shun strangers and mostly want to be left alone by the outside world.
Until last Monday, that is, when 10 of their fighters left their base on Kersay Doh, or God's Mountain, crossed the Thai border and took 500 patients and staff hostage in a hospital in the town of Ratchaburi. Their aim was to protest a recent bout of shelling of their camp by Burmese and Thai military units, who are cooperating to clear the area of hill tribes and make way for border trade and road-building. But within 24 hours of the siege of Ratchaburi Regional Hospital, Thai commandos stormed the building, shot dead all the rebels (without harming any patients) and trussed the bodies in white sheets for the world to see that Thailand would not give in to blackmail. They should not cause trouble for us, said Thailand's normally mild-mannered Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. We did what had to be done. Last October the Thai government was criticized for giving free passage back to the border to five Burmese students who had occupied the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. Those students, who were protesting against the military junta in Rangoon, took refuge with God's Army, and at least one was among the group who attacked the hospital last week. The spectacle of jungle fighters commanded by illiterate messianic twins forcing their way into a modern medical facility was bizarre. As the rebels were shooting in the air to assert their control, a brain surgeon operating on a 10-year-old boy ordered his nurses to lock the door so he could continue (the boy survived). The clash of cultures has its roots in a guerrilla war between the Karen and the military dictators in Rangoon that began half a century ago and has been fought on and off ever since. The territory where the Karen live is mountainous; cerebral malaria is endemic, and pinning down the guerrillas has been next to impossible for Burma's troops. But in February 1997 the Burmese Army, its numbers swollen by forced recruiting of conscripts, launched a massive sweep through the area. Tens of thousands of Karen civilians were displaced at that time, and an unknown number died. The villagers suffered terribly, says Kevin Heppner of the Karen Human Rights Group in Mae Sot, 400 km west of Bangkok. There were many massacres and gang rapes.
With other Karen fighters fleeing in disarray, the Htoo twins reportedly told their villagers to stay and fight. At one point there were just seven of them surrounded by Burmese troops, says Father Augustine, a Thai missionary who lives close to the border and has frequent access to the twins. Somehow they fought their way out. Some believe an army of spirits came to help them. After the twins' initial success, other guerrillas came to join them, leading to even more victories over the Burmese army. They broke off from the main body of Karen fighters and billed themselves God's Army.
When their soldiers died in the struggle against the Burmese, they moved backward, to the old gods, says Sunai Phasuk, a Burma specialist at the Institute of Asian Studies in Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. The Karen are mostly Christian, but they retain many animist beliefs and superstitions. This idea of messiahs is common to people who are oppressed--and it is very common in this region. Since 1997, rumors and superstition have swirled around the Htoo twins as mysteriously as the early morning mists that swathe the mountain forests where they live. Karen villagers along the Thai border say the twins are invulnerable to bullets, that people who walk with them are immune from hurt, that their followers have stepped on land mines that did not detonate. They have special powers, says Plee, a 20-year-old Karen woman who grew up in the same village as the twins. Plee now lives in Ta Kohlang, a Karen village just inside Thailand, and still occasionally sees Luther and Johnny, whom she knows by their Karen names, Bu Lu and Bu Kyaw. I am sure they won't be killed in battle, she says. They are able to control a large number of people. That's why I believe in them.
Few outsiders have climbed God's Mountain. Ka Mar Pa Law village, where the twins live, is on the side of a steep slope, ringed with mine fields. An Associated Press Television News camera crew who were invited to God's Mountain last December found that many of the soldiers surrounding the twins were barely in their teens. The reality of war seemed to be beyond their grasp. The twins played with guns as if they were toys--after Johnny fired some shots, another boy put a papaya on his head as if acting out the William Tell legend. The twins said they had lost count of how many Burmese they had killed. Luther, the more serious of the two, told the camera crew: I have never cried. Why would a man cry?
The twins have laid down strict rules in the village: consumption of pork, eggs and alcohol is forbidden. Some who didn't believe in them were punished and asked to leave the village, says Father Augustine. He says their authority comes from their reputed ability to predict danger and their skills in defusing disputes in the village. This kind of power is a gift, a strange gift.
Not all the Karen believe in the twins' mystique. They are just like normal kids, says Avudh Aree, a 60-year-old Karen living in Ta Kohlang who knows the boys and considers stories of their special powers to be exaggerated. They play with dogs and cats and climb trees. But people in the village believe they have special powers. It is like a religion of the spirits that has developed around them. Some think the boys are manipulated by adults. Members of the mainstream Karen resistance, who are more conventional Christians, regard the twins as little better than heretics. They aren't God's Army, they are Satan's Army, says Major Mary Ohn of the Karen Refugee Committee. God has no children with guns.
The Karen have long believed in messianic cults, and in a legend about a Golden Book that contained the source of all wisdom. Christian missionaries who came in the 19th century sought to exploit these beliefs with gilt-edged bibles and sermons about Jesus Christ. Christian teachings often combined seamlessly with native beliefs. There is a church in the twins' village: Johnny and Luther say they are Baptists and claim to base their moral guidelines on Christian beliefs. Most of the Karen villagers who live close to the God's Army base still believe the twins have the supernatural powers necessary to overcome the Burmese army and thereby to revert to a peaceful life free of outside interference. Plee, the Karen woman from Ta Kohlang, recalled nostalgically a Christmas feast in 1998 at the twins' base in Ka Mar Pa Law, where the main dishes were a giant lizard, monkey, deer and wild vegetables. We ate three times a day, instead of two, and there was singing and dancing all night.
Today the sound of music has been replaced by the sound of war--as Plee spoke, artillery shells could be heard landing on the mountainside. Since the hospital incident the assault on the rebel's base has been stepped up. Some reports late last week suggested the Htoo twins had been forced to flee into the jungle for safety. The twins may have brought down the apocalypse on themselves by sanctioning last week's hospital raid in Thailand. Or they may escape to fight the Burmese again. As ever, rumor and mystery envelop God's Mountain.
With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok