It was January 25, 2000 that the above photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
It’s a chilling photograph. Child soldiers (there are an estimated 1,000,000 children under the age of fifteen serving as soldiers around the world at any given moment), age 12, they looked closer to eight or nine. Twins, Johnny and Luther Htoo, one angelic (Johnny on the left), the other impish with the sides of his head shaved and smoking a cheroot (Luther on the right). They were from what used to be Burma, now Myanmar, members of an ethnic, tribal minority– the Karen (pronounced Kur-IN) who have been at war with the ultra-oppressive Burmese army since 1949. Their home was the isolated mountain region in the mid-east of the country near the Thai border. Their names in Karen are Ehkalumu (Johnny) and Ehkalutaw (Luther) which mean The Patriot Who Will Never Die and the Honest Patriot. Their parents obviously knew their spawn where born to a purpose. They were born in a tiny, farming village called Pe Cha in November, 1987. Since natural gas had been struck in the area and a pipeline was being built to ship the gas through Thailand with the help of U.S. and British corporate money, the Burmese leaders in Rangoon had decided the easiest and most profitable solution was to ethnically cleanse the area of the Karen, slaughtering entire villages, and racking up the usual depressing list of human rights abuses as documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the U.S. State Department: rape, torture, forced relocation, slavery– as in using Karen as forced labor to work on the pipeline or as porters for the army. The Karen have always fought back, their fight led by the Karen National Union (KSU) whose leaders are mostly in exile in Thailand, and had been losing (there are at least 100,00 Karen refugees on the Thai border) until the Htoo twins took over as guerrilla leaders, rising quickly to the rank of generals in their rag tag band known as The Soldiers Of God’s Holy Mountain AKA God’s Army. The Karen are fundamentalist Christians having been converted by American missionaries from Salem, Massachusetts in the early 19th Century. Their beliefs include a vegan diet, no swearing or pre-martial sex, and much quoting of scripture. Many Karen believe that the KSU leaders have been corrupted by living the high life in exile while they fought it out in the jungle against the better armed and more numerous Burmese military. After a raid on their village in which the Burmese killed and raped with impudence, Johnny and Luther, at the time aged nine, approached their local KSU commander and asked for seven guns. That night they led a counter attack on the village and defeated an entire battalion of soldiers. Along with their cousin, a black tongued dwarf named Thoo Pleh they began leading raids from their mountain encampments.
There are dozens of eye witness accounts of what is said to be their supernatural powers (including the eye witness testimony of an American born Nun, one sister Mary who has worked among the Karen for decades). They are said to be the reincarnation of 15th Century Karen warriors and as such are bullet proof. They are crack shots who never miss their target. They are able to appear and disappear at will.
When not at war they acted like normal children, albeit chain smoking children. They played hide and seek, tag and of course War.
The Htoo twins showed up on the radar of the Western media through a very bad tactical error.
Hooking up with a radical, pro-democracy student group several members of God’s Army joined the students in the October, 1999, seizure of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. The siege ended without a shot fired, the Thai army provided a helicopter for the radicals escape and the hostages were freed. Their next action did not end so well. In January of 2000, the same group seized a hospital in Ratchaburi, Thailand in an attempt to draw attention to the cause. This time the Thai army, fed up and disgusted that the Karen would seize a hospital full of innocent bystanders (hospitals are considered sacrosanct even in guerrilla warfare) they attacked, leaving a score of students and their God’s Army attachment dead. This hardened the Thai hearts against the Karen cause considerably, but it did make worldwide headlines, where the above photo of the pre-pubescent generals appeared on the cover of newspapers all over the U.S. , Europe and Asia.
And the fighting continued, with the now weakened Karen more often than not at the losing end. In 2001 Johnny and Luther, after years on the run and hiding out in the mountains, out of ammo and close to starvation crossed the border into Thailand and gave themselves up to the Thai army. Then Prime Minister– Chuan Leekpai was on hand to receive their surrender, shaking Johnny’s hand in a photo op reminiscent of the end of Clockwork Orange. The twins were kept in a refugee camp where they eventually both married and fathered children (Luther married his English teacher). But life in a refugee camp is oppressive and dull, they were not permitted to work, keep arms, train as soldiers, or even farm. In 2006 Johnny left the camp, recrossing the border into Myanmar and gave himself up to the Burmese Army. His current whereabouts are unknown. Luther remains in the Thai refugee camp and has taken up the guitar to pass the time. I keep a photo of Johnny and Luther over my desk where it continues to haunt me. Video footage can be found here.