IT SEEMS TOO bizarre to admit of rational explanation: a terrorist organization of fundamentalist Christians in the jungle of Southeast Asia, calling itself God's Army, led by twin long-haired, cigar-smoking 12-year-old boys who proclaim themselves invulnerable to bullets and land mines. The group burst into prominence this week when it briefly seized control of a provincial Thai hospital, before being routed by Thai commandos. Little is known of the boys, who apparently did not participate in the attack; perhaps their appeal can never be explained.
But the circumstances giving rise to such terrorism are easily understood; ultimately responsible is Burma's brutal regime, which practices a kind of state terrorism all its own. The Burmese generals have driven more than 1 million people (out of a population of 47 million) into exile in neighboring Thailand. According to a recent field survey led by Johns Hopkins University's Dr. Chris Beyer and others, these people took refuge across the border to escape the regime's widespread practice of forced labor, the burden of corrupt officials demanding money and labor, and equally corrupt military commanders who steal food, livestock and land. Some refugees interviewed by the team of public health workers were political dissidents or their families who had been imprisoned and tortured before fleeing; others were apolitical families who simply could not survive in such a harshly repressive climate.
Many migrants are virtually enslaved in sweatshops by exploitative Thai employers. Others camp out in the jungle, hounded by Burmese and Thai soldiers alike. The twin brothers of God's Army are said to hail from a village that Burmese soldiers burned after raping women and killing men; such abuses are widespread enough to make the legend plausible.
None of this excuses the terrorism of God's Army. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratic leader, has consistently rejected violence as a tactic against the regime that keeps her under house arrest. Among other consequences, the hospital seizure will hurt legitimate Burmese dissidents who have found shelter in Thailand and the courageous Thai officials who support them.
But it is also true that Burma's difficulties, including the problems that spill into neighboring Thailand, will persist as long as the brutality of its junta does. The United Nations needs to appoint a special envoy to make clear to the generals the urgency of dialogue with Burma's democrats, who after all won an election (never honored) 10 years ago. Japan and Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors should redouble their commitment not to invest in Burma's murderous regime. And the generals themselves should devote less effort to pointing fingers at others and more to curbing the terrorism they practice against their own people every day.