When they were children, 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 worshiped them in the southeastern jungles of Myanmar. 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 Myanmar 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 Burmese troops entered their village during a sweep of Karen territory. At the time, the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) was in sharp decline.
“We had to defend ourselves because we didn’t like anyone to hurt us,” Luther said. “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 children’s pirate fantasy, shooting tropical fruit off the trees and being worshiped by adult followers who carried them around on their shoulders.
Probably the most famous image of the twins was shot by 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 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 Gotene, a town 335km 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.”