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
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.’’
TARGETS IN THAILAND
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.
TREACHERY BEHIND THE SCENES?
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...