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  Twin Myanmar Rebel Chiefs Surrender

By Matthew Pennington
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2001; 5:55 a.m. EST

SUAN PHUNG, Thailand –– Thailand said Wednesday it may give humanitarian asylum to Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twin boy leaders of a mystical rebel movement from Myanmar who have surrendered with some of their followers.

Hunted and hungry, 14 members of the God's Army group – nine of them children, including the charismatic twins – turned themselves over to Thai authorities on Tuesday after a year on the run along the Thai-Myanmar border.

For more than three years, the boys fought to overthrow Myanmar's military government, and their followers believe Johnny and Luther have magical powers that make them invincible in battle. The boys once claimed to have several hundred followers.

Last year, the Htoo twins became icons for youthful rebellion around the world after the widespread circulation of an Associated Press photograph showed the angelic-looking, long-haired Johnny posing next to his tougher-looking, cigarette-puffing brother, Luther. The boys claimed to be 12 when the picture was taken in December 1999.

"We learned that the reason for their surrender is a lack of supplies and food, and also because they are under pressure from both Myanmar and Thai forces," said Komes Daengthongdee, the governor of Ratchaburi province, where the group surrendered.

"If they ran away from fighting, they will be considered for temporary asylum in Thailand. But if they entered illegally, they will be charged with illegal entry and pushed back," Komes said at a news conference with the twins and 10 other members of the group.

Two other members of the group were held separately, suspected of taking part in a raid last month in which a Thai border village was looted and six villagers were killed. None of the God's Army members spoke to reporters.

On Wednesday, one more follower of the twins also surrendered to the army.

Komes didn't say how long asylum would last, and there was no immediate comment from Myanmar's military regime about their surrender or the possibility of asylum. But Komes said Myanmar had not asked for the extradition of the God's Army leaders and members.

About 100,000 other refugees from Myanmar, mostly members of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, live in refugee camps along the border with Thailand after fleeing fighting between rebel groups and the Myanmar army.

Most, if not all, of the God's Army followers are members of Myanmar's sizable ethnic Karen minority, which has long sought autonomy from the central government.

Many Karens, like the twins, are fundamentalist Christians, and most of the rebel groups support the pro-democracy efforts of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But God's Army's unsophisticated political beliefs are mostly driven by hatred for Myanmar's army.

Thailand's military often has ignored rebel activities along the border, but the involvement of God's Army in terrorist attacks inside Thailand has drawn the ire of Bangkok.

On Wednesday, true to form, Luther was smoking a cigarette when the child soldiers were presented to the media at the Border Patrol Police headquarters near where they surrendered. He grinned when a reporter shouted his name.

Johnny, with tattoos visible on his arm under a tatty yellow-and-white striped shirt, smiled when hearing his name, but he looked tense.

Both boys looked unhealthy. Luther appeared to be very thin and Johnny seemed to have a bloated belly. Gov. Komes said Thai doctors had examined the boys and found they were not sick, but that some of their companions were.

Seven other children, including two girls, were also at the news conference, along with two men who appeared to be in their 20s, and a middle-aged woman.

The 14 God's Army members turned themselves at the border with Myanmar in Ratchaburi province, 60 miles west of Bangkok. God's Army first gained notoriety after it gave refuge to another group of Myanmar dissidents who had taken hostages at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok in October 1999. The Thais had allowed them to go free in exchange for releasing the captives.

Several months later, members of the same group, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors, took control of a Ratchaburi hospital, demanding that the Thai government send medicine and doctors to treat ethnic Karen people injured in fighting with Myanmar troops. Thai commandos killed all hostage-takers.

Although it was never certain that God's Army members participated in the hospital raid, the incident made them most-wanted persons on both sides of the border.

After the raid, the Myanmar army, aided by Thai forces, ousted God's Army from its stronghold, and they have been on the run ever since, reported to be hiding out in villages on either side of the Thai-Myanmar border.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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