God’s Army: The rea­son for the Burmese Em­bassy siege

The siege of the Burmese Em­bassy in Bangkok on Oc­to­ber 1, 1999, was the beginning of the end for the off­shoot of the Karen Na­tional Union known as God’s Army, its rep­u­ta­tion built around twin broth­ers said to have su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers By Max­mil­ian Wech­sler

Bangkok Post - - Spectrum -

God’s Army was formed by a Karen pas­tor, Thape, on March 7, 1997, in­side Burma, af­ter about 200 deeply re­li­gious and su­per­sti­tious Karen Chris­tian fam­i­lies de­cided to aban­don the vil­lages they had lived in for cen­turies in the Tavoy area of Burma and flee to Thai­land in Fe­bru­ary, 1997.

‘‘They fled be­cause they were per­se­cuted by Burma’s rul­ing State Peace and De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil [SPDC],’’ said 55-year-old Padu Kwe Htoo Win, who has been a lead­ing mem­ber of the anti-gov­ern­ment Karen Na­tional Union (KNU) and chair­man of its Mer­guiTavoy district since 1991.

‘‘Dur­ing the jour­ney to the Thai bor­der, eight-year-old twins Johnny and Luther Htoo both claimed to have had a vi­sion of God com­mand­ing them to lead their young com­pa­tri­ots to fight the SPDC,’’ Kwe Htoo re­called.

‘‘They asked my per­mis­sion to fight the SPDC. I thought it was a joke and told them that any­one can fight the SPDC.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Kwe Htoo, the full name of the group was Kaser­doh God’s Army. Some of its mem­bers also called them­selves ‘‘Je­sus War­riors’’ or ‘‘Je­sus Com­man­dos’’. Johnny and Luther were merely the spir­i­tual leaders of God’s Army and had lit­tle say in the group’s plan­ning and op­er­a­tions. Th­ese were un­der Shwe Bya, God’s Army’s mil­i­tary com­man­der, who also ma­nip­u­lated the twins.

Be­tween 1997 and 2000, God’s Army had about 200 young sol­diers. Some re­mark­able bat­tle­field vic­to­ries against the SPDC were at­trib­uted to the twins’ al­leged pow­ers. God’s Army re­port­edly in­flicted heavy ca­su­al­ties and rarely suf­fered a death or in­jury.

This led the Karen peo­ple to be­lieve that the twins had su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers. How­ever, the early suc­cesses more likely were the re­sult of the determination, brav­ery and knowl­edge of ter­rain dis­played by its young sol­diers.

God’s Army’s bravado caught the at­ten­tion of var­i­ous for­eign or­gan­i­sa­tions, which do­nated money and ma­te­ri­als to them. Among the big­gest donors was a South Korean re­li­gious group that fi­nanced the construction of a church at Takolang, a small vil­lage near Suan Phung district in the Thai prov­ince of Ratch­aburi, bor­der­ing Burma. Many God’s Army mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing the fam­ily of Johnny and Luther, lived there. They fre­quently crossed the bor­der to their head­quar­ters in Burma.

At the height of God’s Army’s suc­cesses in early 1999, op­por­tunists within God’s Army and the Karen Sol­i­dar­ity Or­gan­i­sa­tion (KSO) tried to gain con­trol of the group. The for­tunes of God’s Army started to de­cline. In­ter­nal squab­bles weak­ened com­bat readi­ness and ef­fi­ciency. Th­ese squab­bles were mainly about money and other ben­e­fits de­rived from for­eign donors.

Sev­eral young South Kore­ans who said they were ‘‘mis­sion­ar­ies’’ fre­quently vis­ited Suan Phung, where they were looked af­ter by a Karen pas­tor. This pas­tor also tried to con­trol God’s Army, but failed be­cause the twins didn’t like him.

I met th­ese mis­sion­ar­ies in Septem­ber, 1999, and some said they pre­vi­ously worked for the South Korean gov­ern­ment’s se­cu­rity ser­vice.

Ear­lier, in June 1999, a KSO leader with con­nec­tions to a for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency brought 12 mem­bers of a rad­i­cal group called the Vig­or­ous Burmese Stu­dent War­riors (VBSW) to Takolang. He in­tro­duced them to Saw Toe Toe, a found­ing mem­ber and sec­re­tary-gen­eral of God’s Army, who led the VBSW mem­bers to God’s Army’s camp in­side Burma in early Septem­ber, 1999.

‘‘Tak­ing ad­van­tage of God’s Army’s in­no­cence, they con­vinced the group that they would be bet­ter off join­ing in fu­ture VBSW mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions,’’ ex­plained Kwe Htoo. ‘‘They bribed the God’s Army fight­ers with good­ies, in­clud­ing cigarettes. The twins were chain smokers at that time.’’


The 25-hour siege of the Burmese Em­bassy in Bangkok, al­most ex­actly nine years ago to­day, was or­gan­ised and car­ried out by the VBSW, whose mem­bers ob­tained hand grenades and ri­fles from the God’s Army base. They took 89 peo­ple hostage, in­clud­ing em­bassy staff, for­eign­ers and Thais.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions with Thai of­fi­cials, the VBSW mem­bers and some of their hostages were flown from Bangkok to the God’s Army head­quar­ters in­side Burma, where they were wel­comed by a wait­ing group of God’s Army sol­diers led by Shwe Bya.

Ac­cord­ing to Kwe Htoo, God’s Army had cleared the for­est to make a he­li­copter land­ing

pad, lo­cated about 300-400 me­tres from the Thai bor­der, be­fore the em­bassy siege be­gan.

Ear­lier in June, 1999, Kwe Htoo re­ceived a let­ter from VBSW com­man­der Ye Thi Ha ask­ing his per­mis­sion to travel in­side Burma to con­duct some ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘‘I didn’t re­ply be­cause I didn’t know him. I heard later that the VBSW peo­ple ar­rived at Takolang and then moved to the God’s Army head­quar­ters,’’ said Kwe Htoo. ‘‘I thought they wanted to do some­thing in­side Burma. I never sus­pected that they would con­duct an op­er­a­tion in Thai­land.’’

The em­bassy siege was fol­lowed by an­other dar­ing in­ci­dent on Jan­uary 24, 2000, when three VBSW mem­bers, ac­com­pa­nied this time by seven God’s Army rebels, hi­jacked a bus near the Thai bor­der and forced the driver to take them to Ratch­aburi, where they then took over the pro­vin­cial hospi­tal. Sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple, in­clud­ing pa­tients and hospi­tal staff, were held cap­tive for about 22 hours. The rebels made sev­eral de­mands, one be­ing that the Thai doc­tors and nurses would be sent to treat their sick and wounded. The group claimed it had been un­der sus­tained at­tacks by Burmese troops for a week at their moun­tain base near the Thai bor­der. They also wanted Thai au­thor­i­ties to open the bor­der and al­low about 200 God’s Army sol­diers to seek refugee in Thai­land. Af­ter an aborted ne­go­ti­a­tion to de­ter­mine terms for sur­ren­der, Thai com­man­dos stormed the hospi­tal and killed all 10 hostage-tak­ers.

Kwe Htoo said the at­tacks on the Burmese Em­bassy and Ratch­aburi Hospi­tal had cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for both God’s Army and the VBSW. Thai­land was now their ‘‘sec­ond en­emy’’ — af­ter the SPDC.

‘‘Af­ter the hospi­tal as­sault, God’s Army’s fate was sealed as all spon­sors aban­doned them,’’ said Kwe Htoo.

‘‘Be­fore and af­ter the em­bassy siege, the KNU tried des­per­ately and un­suc­cess­fully to con­vince God’s Army leaders and the twins that they had cho­sen the wrong path by join­ing with the VBSW in their strug­gle to free their home­land. We urged them not to be­lieve their prom­ises, and in­stead to lis­ten to their Karen broth­ers in the KNU.

‘‘God’s Army was ex­ploited and tricked by the VBSW, who promised them new uni­forms, food, medicine, weapons and am­mu­ni­tion in re­turn for their sup­port. None of their prom­ises ma­te­ri­alised.’’


The at­tack on the Burmese Em­bassy was led by Kyaw Ni, or Big Johnny, of the VBSW. Af­ter the Ratch­aburi in­ci­dent, God’s Army sol­diers be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with Kyaw Ni. The twins fi­nally with­drew their sup­port for the VBSW. Even Johnny, who was al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by Kyaw Ni, turned against him.

God’s Army started lis­ten­ing to the KNU, but it was too late. The dam­age had al­ready been done. The twins gave sev­eral head­line­mak­ing in­ter­views which didn’t help their cause ei­ther.

‘‘They were pre­sented to the pub­lic as a fa­nat­i­cal re­li­gious group,’’ said Kwe Htoo.

Fi­nally, in Jan­uary, 2001, af­ter al­most four years of armed re­sis­tance against the SPDC and be­ing pur­sued most of that time by Thai au­thor­i­ties as well, about 20 hun­gry, ex­hausted and des­per­ate God’s Army rem­nants, in­clud­ing Johnny and Luther, sur­ren­dered to Thai au­thor­i­ties. Then Thai Prime Min­is­ter Chuan Leek­pai met the twins at Suan Phung and talked with them briefly through an in­ter­preter.

When I met the twins at Ton Yang refugee camp in Kan­chanaburi on June 12, 2003, both said they would never take up arms again. ‘‘We want to go back home to see our friends,’’ said Luther at that time.

Other par­tic­i­pants in the God’s Army saga went dif­fer­ent ways. For­mer sec­re­tary-gen­eral Saw Toe Toe and some oth­ers were promptly granted refugee sta­tus in the US. But most of their Karen coun­try­men weren’t so lucky.

About 418 God’s Army rebels and rel­a­tives who had crossed to Thai­land be­tween Fe­bru­ary 2 and 3 in 2000, af­ter the SPDC mounted an of­fen­sive against them, ended up at refugee camps in Thai­land.

Thai au­thor­i­ties also re­tal­i­ated against God’s Army by evict­ing some of their rel­a­tives from Takolang and send­ing them to refugee camps as well.

VBSW com­man­der Ye Thi Ha was luck­ier. When a Thai po­lice unit waited out­side his Bangkok apart­ment ready to ar­rest him, a phone call came with an or­der to abort the op­er­a­tion, lend­ing cre­dence to the sug­ges­tion that Ye Thi Ha worked for a for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency.

Shwe Bya sur­ren­dered to the SPDC in Au­gust, 2003, af­ter be­ing of­fered a log­ging con­ces­sion in Burma. He later con­tacted the twins through an as­so­ciate and promised all kinds of priv­i­leges if they sur­ren­dered to the SPDC. Johnny fi­nally ac­cepted the deal and sur­ren­dered to­gether with his fa­ther and some other mem­bers of the group in July 2006.>>

>> The Burmese gov­ern­ment news­pa­per, The New Light of Myan­mar, pub­lished a re­port on July 26, 2006, ac­com­pa­nied by a photo of 10 grim-faced men wear­ing mil­i­tary uni­forms. In the photo Johnny is stand­ing be­hind a row of ri­fles and am­mu­ni­tion. The re­port said that ‘‘a nine-mem­ber armed group from God’s Army with its base in an­other coun­try, led by Johnny Htoo, [had] re­turned to the le­gal fold’’.

Af­ter Johnny’s ‘‘sur­ren­der’’, Luther con­tacted Kwe Htoo try­ing to find out what was go­ing on with his brother. He said he had tried to con­tact Johnny many times, but to no avail.

Re­cently, Luther re­ceived a mes­sage from his brother, say­ing: ‘‘If some­one comes and tries to per­suade you to sur­ren­der [to the SPDC], kill him. Don’t ever sur­ren­der.’’

Ac­cord­ing to re­li­able sources, Johnny is liv­ing with his new wife in Myitta town, east of Tavoy.


The peo­ple who ma­nip­u­lated and ex­ploited Johnny and Luther Htoo caused a great dis­ser­vice to the Thai peo­ple. The most strik­ing ex­am­ple of the ex­ploita­tion of the twins occurred on Nov 4, 1999. On that rainy evening, a team of Thai Army and po­lice of­fi­cers dis­patched to per­suade Kyaw Ni and Pida to sur­ren­der were con­fronted by dozens of armed God’s Army rebels in the jun­gle on the ThaiBurmese bor­der. The of­fi­cers promised them fair treat­ment. Sev­eral VBSW mem­bers who ar­rived from Ma­neeloy refugee camp also pleaded with Kyaw Ni and Pida to give up. Both re­fused. An er­ratic Kyaw Ni pointed his AK-47 as­sault ri­fle at the of­fi­cers.

Fi­nally, Kyaw Ni asked the twins to de­cide his and Pida’s fate. Shwe Bya, who greatly ad­mired Kyaw Ni, knew ex­actly what to do.

When a Karen in­ter­preter asked the twins: ‘‘Do you want Big Johnny and Pida to leave us [God’s Army] and go with the Thai of­fi­cers,’’ both said: ‘‘Yes, we want them to go.’’

But the in­ter­preter, act­ing on the or­der of Shwe Bya, said ex­actly the op­po­site. This fact came out dur­ing this writer’s re­cent in­ter­view with Luther. It was con­firmed by an­other per­son who was there as well.

Had the in­ter­preter not twisted the twins’ words, the Ratch­aburi Hospi­tal tragedy would have never occurred.

The Thai of­fi­cers’ trip to per­suade Kyaw Ni and Pida to sur­ren­der fol­lowed a let­ter the two sent to Prime Min­is­ter Chuan. In the let­ter, dated Oct 12, 1999, VBSW leaders apol­o­gised for their action and ex­plained the mo­tives be­hind the em­bassy takeover.

In an­other ex­pres­sion of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Thai gov­ern­ment, the VBSW re­turned a pis­tol seized from a Thai Spe­cial Branch po­lice­man who had been guard­ing the em­bassy on the day of the takeover. Shwe Bya handed the pis­tol over to Thai of­fi­cers in Takolang on Oct 22, 1999. A Thai se­cu­rity of­fi­cer re­cently re­marked that it is per­plex­ing that, af­ter th­ese over­tures by the VBSW, Kyaw Ni and Pida didn’t sur­ren­der.

A VBSW mem­ber dis­closed that Kyaw Ni and Pida did in­tend to sur­ren­der in the jun­gle to the Thais on Novem­ber 4, 1999, but a cer­tain third party, af­ter learn­ing about their in­ten­tions, warned them that if they did so they would be jailed for many years in Thai­land or trans­ferred to the SPDC to face ex­e­cu­tion.

‘‘Ob­vi­ously, some­one was afraid that they might re­veal se­crets to the Thai in­ves­ti­ga­tors or the me­dia that could in­crim­i­nate cer­tain peo­ple,’’ said the VBSW source.

Pida was killed in the Ratch­aburi Hospi­tal siege and Kyaw Ni was killed sev­eral years ago in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances, shortly af­ter sev­eral ex­iles met him in the jun­gle on the Thai-Burmese bor­der to dis­cuss his fu­ture.

From its for­ma­tion in March, 1997, un­til its cur­tain call in Jan­uary, 2001, God’s Army was a costly fail­ure.

It didn’t bring any ben­e­fits to the Karen peo­ple or to the pro-democ­racy move­ment. The only ones who gained were a few ex­iled op­por­tunists, their rad­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions, some for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and the SPDC.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the Burmese dis­si­dent leaders agreed that the em­bassy and the hospi­tal sieges, os­ten­si­bly done to at­tract at­ten­tion to the pro-democ­racy move­ment, were ac­tu­ally ma­jor set­backs, as they caused the sen­ti­ment of the Thai gov­ern­ment and the Thai peo­ple to turn against them.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to se­cu­rity sources, one for­eign mis­sion in Bangkok ben­e­fited from the Burmese Em­bassy siege con­sid­er­ably. The sources say that one of three vans that left the Burmese Em­bassy on Sathorn road shortly af­ter the siege be­gan en­tered an­other nearby em­bassy com­pound, loaded with a huge vol­ume of doc­u­ments packed in rub­bish bags.

Ac­cord­ing to the sources, the VBSW some­how man­aged to re­move a num­ber of se­cret doc­u­ments — in­clud­ing some per­tain­ing to drug-re­lated is­sues, such as the iden­ti­ties of in­for­mants work­ing for for­eign coun­tries — from a vault in­side the Burmese am­bas­sador’s of­fice.

On Oct 2 the doc­u­ments were sorted through ac­cord­ing to im­por­tance by a lead­ing Burmese ex­ile who was called in to help. The man wasn’t al­lowed to go home for some days. The prom­i­nent ex­ile died about two months later, on Dec 1, 1999, al­legedly from heart fail­ure.

At the end of Novem­ber — af­ter he re­port- edly met with some for­eign in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers — he ap­peared ner­vous and said emo­tion­ally that he was ‘‘not go­ing to do that’’, without elab­o­rat­ing.

A few days later, he was or­dered to move his of­fice to a ‘‘more se­cure’’ lo­ca­tion. He was re­luc­tant to do so. Dur­ing the move, he sud­denly col­lapsed while car­ry­ing a desk­top com­puter.

Among the many wreaths at his fu­neral in Bangkok, one was de­liv­ered by a man on a mo­tor­cy­cle who quickly dis­ap­peared. The acro­nym VBSW on the wreath was clearly vis­i­ble to the crowd of mourn­ers, who num­bered in the hun­dreds and in­cluded a smat­ter­ing of in­tel­li­gence agents, both on foot and in­side a white van parked nearby, who were busy tak­ing pho­tos of the mourn­ers.

ABOVE: A war­rior’s re­union at a God’s Army hide­out some­where in­side Burma. From left to right, an uniden­ti­fied war­rior, Johnny, Min Lwin and Pida.

TIRED OF THE FIGHT: By the time they reached the age of 13, the Karen twins who led their peo­ple against the Burmese junta only wanted a more nor­mal life. Johnny Htoo, sec­ond left, and Luther with their par­ents and three-year-old sis­ter at a refugee...

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