Luther shaves the front of his head, has a stare that could kill at 1,000 yards and is prone to mood swings that make him bark sharp reprimands at his followers. Johnny has long hair, effeminate features and a beguiling smile that doesn't fade even when he fires off rounds from his assault rifle. Together the legendary 12-year-old Htoo twins control "God's Army," a nominally Christian force of 200 youthful Karen tribesmen in the mountainous rain forest of Burma (now known as Myanmar). The army's tots-to-teens fighters revere their boy leaders as bulletproof messiahs.
Last week the troops came out of the heart of Burma's darkness to engage in a century-against-century collision straight from Apocalypse Now. Ten of the young fighters wrapped their faces in black masks, left their home base on Kersay Doh, or "God's Mountain," commandeered a bus to cross the nearby Thai border and took 500 patients and staff hostage in a hospital in the town of Ratchaburi. Big mistake. They had wanted to protest recent shelling by Thai military units, who were cooperating with the Burmese military junta to roust out hill tribes and make way for border trade and roads. But the impulsive raid quickly dissolved into a debacle. Marching into a hospital with guns and explosives squandered any sympathy the Karen rebels had had in Thailand, their traditional safe haven. Within 24 hours, Thai commandos stormed the building, shot dead all the rebels and trussed the bodies in white sheets to show the world that Thailand would not give in to blackmail.
But the picture that shocked the world was the one widely broadcast of Johnny and the cigar-smoking Luther, still at large. The spectacle of foreign jungle fighters commanded by illiterate, messianic twins forcing their way into a modern medical facility was as bizarre as it was outrageous. But it shone the global spotlight for a moment on one of the century's longest-running insurgencies, where ethnic minorities have been struggling for some form of autonomy from the government of Burma since the country's independence in 1948.
For the past three years, stories, rumors and superstition have swirled around the Htoo twins as mysteriously as the early morning mists that swathe the mountain forests where they live. Ka Mar Pa Law village lies on the side of a steep slope ringed with minefields, and the path is known only to local Karens who bring in supplies and a few visiting missionaries. There, in a huddle of thatched huts, the boys preside over an encampment with subsistence food, no electricity and little knowledge of the outside world. God's Army shuns strangers and mostly wants to be left alone.
Luther and Johnny reportedly emerged as leaders in 1997, when other Karen fighters fled in disarray ahead of a massive government assault on the country's last unruly region. The Htoo twins 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 has frequent access to the twins. "Somehow they fought their way out, and some believe an army of spirits came to help them." After the twins' initial success, other guerrillas joined them, leading to more victories over the Burmese army. Soon they splintered away from the main body of Karen rebels and began calling themselves God's Army.