SANGKHLABURI, Thailand — When they were kids, Johnny and Luther Htoo were bulletproof and invulnerable to land mines—or so went the story that briefly made them famous as hundreds of guerrillas followed and even worshipped them in the southeastern jungles of Burma. Today, well over a decade later, their “God’s Army” is no more, and the twins’ greatest accomplishment may be that both are still alive.
Luther lives in Sweden. Johnny remains at an unofficial refugee camp inside Thailand, not far from where the brothers were sent after they surrendered to Thai authorities in 2001. Now 25, Johnny has hopes of reuniting with family in New Zealand, and Luther has questions about their former comrades that may never be answered.
Members of their Karen ethnic group, who have long sought autonomy in Burma, have laid down their arms since a military dictatorship gave way to a nominally civilian government in 2011. Last month, during his first trip back to Thailand since leaving for Sweden in 2009, Luther said he would fight only if his people were hurt again.
“It’s not fun to fight anymore, now that I’m afraid to die. No one wants to fight unless they have to, you know,” Luther said.
The legend of the twins began to form in 1997, when Burma troops entered their village during a sweep of Karen territory. At the time, the rebel Karen National Union was in sharp decline.
“We had to defend ourselves because we didn’t like anyone to hurt us,” Luther recalled. “We love our motherland, so we chose to fight. We got seven rifles from the KNU and there were seven of us. We used them to fight against the Burmese army. We prayed before we fought, and then we won.”
They dubbed themselves God’s Army. The boys were rambunctious, but strict discipline was maintained, as well as a rigorous Christian routine. There was no liquor in their village and a church service was held at least once a day.
Journalists were amazed when they traveled to their small village of Ka Mar Pa Law, far from any towns or even paved roads. Video showed the twins living what looked like a kid’s pirate fantasy, shooting tropical fruit off the trees and being worshipped by adult followers who carried them around on their shoulders.
Probably the most famous image of the twins was shot by Associated Press photographer Apichart Weerawong when they were 12. The tightly cropped portrait shows Luther with shaved forelocks and raised brows, insouciantly puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette. Johnny, with neatly parted and combed long hair, softly feminine face and a sad, soulful gaze, stands behind his brother’s right shoulder.
A joint interview with the AP last month highlighted the very different lives the Htoo brothers have led since then.
Luther appeared almost chic in a traditional Karen blouse over jeans, one silver hoop earring on his left ear and two on his right. Johnny wore an old button-down shirt several sizes too big, an evident charity hand-me-down. He looked weary and nervous.
Luther now lives in Götene, a town 335 kilometers (208 miles) west of Stockholm, where he studied economics, history and other liberal arts subjects and has worked several jobs, including caregiver for the elderly. While in Sweden, he married a Karen woman from another tribe and had a child with her, but they later got divorced, the child staying with the mother.
“I like Sweden but it’s very cold. Cold and snow, but I like it there because the country is peaceful,” Luther said. “There’s no one shooting at each other and no one hurting each other.”
Johnny eventually settled down to work as a rice farmer but returned less than a year ago to the refugee camp in Thailand where he had stayed with Luther. He was shy during the interview and inclined to defer to his brother.
Before departing Thailand last month, Luther tried to learn more about what happened to dozens of his comrades who disappeared after surrendering.
“Their wives and children have been waiting,” he said. “It’s been 13 years. I think all of them are dead.”
They may have been victims of a calamitous turn in God’s Army’s fortunes that came after it became enmeshed with an even more fringe Burma anti-government group.
The so-called Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors seized the Burma Embassy in the Thai capital, Bangkok, in 1999. After a short siege, Thai officials arranged a getaway by helicopter for them to the Burma border area where God’s Army was based.
Johnny and Luther took them in. But the student warriors were targets of two countries, Burma and Thailand, which lost face from the embassy takeover despite resolving it peacefully. Reportedly, Thailand began shelling the twins’ village to help corner the embassy raiders.
Shambles turned to disaster when the student warriors and some God’s Army members crossed back into Thailand and seized a provincial hospital in Ratchaburi in 2000.
By Luther’s account, student warriors and some members of God’s Army went to the hospital to ask for medicine and doctors to help people wounded by the shelling. He did not explain why they went armed.
In the end, no hostages at the hospital were hurt, but all 10 attackers were shot dead by Thai authorities—some after surrendering, according to witnesses.
God’s Army quickly fell, and the boys surrendered at their village. They were treated well, but their comrades, who lacked the shield of international publicity, may not have been.
“They were separated into groups of men, women and children. The Thai soldiers took 55 men with them and said they would be brought to work for the soldiers,” Luther told members of the Lawyers Council of Thailand as he sought their advice on tracking down the men. “Since that day, no one ever saw them again.”
Luther and Johnny stayed together at a refugee camp in Thailand, but later became separated. In 2006, Burma state television reported that Johnny and eight of his God’s Army comrades had turned themselves in because “they could not put up with the bullying of fellow rebels” and realized “the goodwill of the government.”
Luther said the truth is that Johnny was lured back to Burma by false promises of work. A “surrender” was staged for TV, he said, with uniforms and a handover of weapons that didn’t belong to them.
Now Luther is helping Johnny seek ways to stay with their mother and sister, who now live in New Zealand. “But I will have talk to a lot of people to make that happen,” Luther said. Their father lives in another Thai refugee camp.
The AP interview marked the last time Luther and Johnny would see each other before Luther returned to Sweden. As the brothers parted, Johnny’s eyes appeared to well with tears.
“C’mon, real men don’t cry,” Luther told his brother. He promised to return to see him next year.