A commission from Maxim UK to ghost write a six page feature based on the experiences of a French photographer. February 2002.
© Dan white. No repro without permission.
Three years ago the rumours began to drip from the steaming fastness of the border jungles. Burma’s ominously titled SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council – had swept forward in a savage offensive of slaughter and rape intended to cleanse the region of ethnic Karen tribes and free up the land for foreign oil companies. But even as SLORC slashed and burned its way through Karen National Union (KNU) resistance fighters, the legend of an invincible, heavily armed band of fanatics was emerging. This is their story. The story of God’s Army.
On a humid day in 1998 I found myself near the Thai border village of Ban Huay Sud. With me was a detachment of KNU refugee soldiers who had been assigned to take me to the infant generals of God’s Army of the sacred mountains: Luther and Johnny Htoo. Also known as the mystical twins, or the Divine Messengers of the Holy Cross. These were two children who took on the might of modern, military terror armed only with faith in an imaginary warrior horde and a burning hatred of the people who would steal from them the sacred mountain known as ‘Kersay Doh’.
Our guides were teenagers with fashionable haircuts, baggy jeans and bogus Nikes, one of whom did a Michael Jackson moonwalk to perfection. We were wary knowing that the Thai military intelligence knew a western journalist was trying to reach the child leaders. They would be searching for us.
Dusk fell and we bivouacked at the last outpost of the KNU. On waking the teenagers changed in to their combat fatigues and exchanged the moonwalk for the M16.
We spent the morning dodging Thai military patrols and by lunchtime we were approaching the land of the sacred mountain. We walked up a steep valley in the path of a stream, amidst a landscape of breathtaking beauty, walking in the water for the simple reason that the stream’s banks were, and still are, littered with land mines.
It wasn’t long before we got our first glimpse of them: Lilliputian warriors silhouetted against the misty jungle backdrop. Coming closer I saw the black scarves on their heads and the fixed intensity of their eyes watching us as we climbed towards them. This was a patrol of God’s Army, aged between seven and fifteen, their commander perhaps sixteen. My KNU escort hailed them and soon these tiny soldiers were posing for photos, pulling faces at each other and peering into the lenses of my cameras. This fetid spot of landmine-strewn jungle had become their school playground. After a few minutes the squadron’s youthful commander barked an order in convincing adult military fashion and the toy soldiers fell quiet before moving out in formation.
By nightfall we had arrived at their headquarters by the ‘Field of Lakes’ in the land of the Sacred Mountain. It was here, in Burma’s kindergarten Heart of Darkness that we hoped to meet their very own miniature Kurtz. As we squatted on a bamboo platform on the side of a hill, I got my first sight of Luther. A pint sized visionary decked in military green and pulling on a huge cigar, he was being carried by his bodyguard, a heap of muscles who I later learned was called Rambo. Both Luther and Johnny were chain smokers. Both enjoyed kicking away landmines with their feet, too, such were their feelings of invincibility.
Luther had already perfected the look of distant, pale intensity that he would wear almost continually after the brother’s surrender. Soon Johnny was carried over too. He was more engaging. He asked my escort for the purpose of my visit. “Later we talk. For now take him to see Mr David. He can tell the foreigner about our struggle.”
This eight-year-old boy issued orders with a high pitched, but practiced authority.
I was taken towards a drab hut. In the doorway sat a dwarf. Mr David, the philosopher dwarf. When I approached he screamed in Karen, “Get back! Get back! You are too close!” Once he had calmed down Mr David told me from a distance about how Luther and Johnny came to be the divine inspiration for the battle against the evil of SLORC. He explained that Johnny was the reincarnation of the legendary Karen freedom fighter, Johnny Htoo One. “He fought and killed the Japanese invaders many years ago. Now he is with us again. Reborn to help his people.” When the KNU fled from SLORC, Johnny and Luther left their village and went to see the leaders of the Karen. “They always knew they had a destiny to save our Kersay Doh and now is the time to fulfil it.”
Mr David told me how they asked for, “Seven guns, seven men and seven uniforms.” Then they went out and slaughtered a heavily armed patrol of 50 SLORC trained soldiers. From then on everyone knew about Luther and Johnny and volunteers inspired by hatred for the Burmese persecutors flocked to their banner of the sacred fish. He also told me of the mystical power the twins wielded against the invader. “They are helped by the six hundred thousand soldiers of the invisible army of the sacred mountain. Bullets cannot hurt them! When they see landmines they just kick them away with their magic feet!” He told me how the twins armed their soldiers with magic bullets, which multiplied tenfold on impact shattering the bones of their enemies. He told me that the twins were shape-shifters changing at night into venerable old men with long white beards. He said no one could stop them. “These are our apostles. Instruments chosen by God to bring redemption.”
In time Mr David would be proven tragically mistaken.
I was given permission to walk around the camp before my audience with Luther and Johnny. The whole place was ordered by an unwritten, but strictly adhered to, code of practice. No alcohol, no sex, no gossip, no eggs, no lies, no pork, no swearing. Although the soldiers were suicidally brave, they were prohibited from fighting the enemy on Sundays and Mondays. Strangely, the enemy chose not to act on this military abstinence. If they had done they could have won the war simply by launching attacks over a long weekend.
The two boys had just finished their evening meal and Rambo was clearing away the plates when I was motioned over. I asked them if they liked to play like other children. “Yes,” said Luther. “We like to play. We like to play war. My friends pretend to be the Burmese invaders and then we fight each other.” There was a pause before he added, “We like to arm wrestle.” The twins then demonstrated their arm wrestling skills for me. Johnny lost and looked sullen. He muttered something in Karen that I image meant, “Best of three?”
I asked Luther why a child his age smokes so much. “I am 90 years old. I can do anything I like.” Has he heard of the TOTAL French oil company? Luther looked up from the abstract shape he was drawing in the dirt with a stick. “What is an oil company?”
One year later, while I am holed up in a Burmese hotel on another assignment, I switch on the TV and catch a news flash announcing God’s Army has hijacked a packed bus in Ratchaburi, just a few miles inside the Thai border. Armed with machine guns and grenades, wearing balaclavas and jungle green, the report says, the boys have seized control of a hospital full of hundreds of now terrified patients.
I arrive at the scene just as elite anti-terrorist commandos are storming the hospital. The air crackles with the sound of gunfire, stun grenades and screams. I glimpse the kidnappers from afar, and get a gut feeling something is wrong. God’s Army cannot be responsible for this. The hijackers are clearly men, not boys. And moreover, why would Luther and Johnny want to attack a hospital in broadly friendly Thailand?
It quickly becomes apparent that the perpetrators of this act are not the twins themselves, nor their army, but a cell of the ‘Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors’, a group with close links to God’s Army. Luther and Johnny however instantly incur the wrath of the Thai authorities, who, previously, had little interest in their activities. But as soon as the Burmese renegades begin to cross the border to attack Thai targets in a bid to highlight the plight of the Karen (and protest in particular against a recent bout of shelling of their villages by Burmese and Thai military units), the Thais quickly lost patience with the twins. It is unclear whether Luther and Johnny are responsible for these acts, but their influence on, and sympathies for, the perpetrators is enough to persuade the Thai army of the need to pursue them.
The battle outside the hospital is a short one. The kidnappers are mown down. Their bodies are put on display for the waiting media who cluster around in a macabre feeding frenzy of flash bulbs. The military claims that the hijackers were killed in “the battle,” but the evidence suggests otherwise. The truth is that the student warriors had been captured, then stripped, tied-up and clinically executed one by one. Each man has been shot with a single bullet to the head.
Hunted from all sides, their sacred mountain under constant shellfire by the Thai army – who by now have pinned a further series of brutal border raids on the twins – and a price on their heads from both SLORC and the KNU (who turned against God’s Army after the Ratchaburi incident which they regarded as a blatant attack on their Thai benefactors), Luther and Johnny eventually surrender to the Thai authorities. In January, about a year after the bloody episode at Ratchaburi hospital, they are found a few miles inside the Thai border, along with twelve members of God’s Army and put under guard in a Thai border patrol police camp. The Thai authorities, however, don’t particularly want God’s children in their care. They are currently close to persuading the US to grant Johnny and Luther asylum. But for now the little generals remain in Thailand stuck in limbo. Which is where I find them shortly after their capture.
Seated beside me at the wheel of a four-wheel drive is Erika, a young, Norwegian primary school teacher. On the back seat are piled toys, sweets and cans of food.
We arrive. A fly blown outhouse in Western Thailand is the end of the road for Luther and Johnny. As I approach I hear singing. Mournful singing punctuated with cries of, “Yave!” and, “Yesus!” God and Jesus in the local language of the Karen.
There is what appears to be a thick canvas of tropical insects draped around it. It is suffocatingly hot. Sitting in a circle on the dirty cement floor are a group of adults – one a woman with a baby in her arms. Beside them is a crowd of scruffy kids listening intently to the words being read from the bible. With one final song prayers are concluded and the kids leap to their feet, running towards Erika with open arms and beaming faces. They gather around her legs, hang on to her knees, giggling as she passes out the sweets and toys. Johnny smiles at me, but like Luther, he does not move. Luther looks right through me, his vacant, pale face a mask of apathy and indifference. Johnny never seems to get older. A twelve-year-old boy who has commanded an army on the field of battle and seen his people slaughtered by a vicious regime obsessed with oil revenues.
Luther and Johnny’s father appears and pats his sons on the head. “My little generals! Are you happy my little generals?” says the proud father again.
“Johnny eat your rice! Luther eat your chicken! Or I will take away your toys.”
Their mother is impatient and cross. “My babies are not generals!” But once they were.