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.