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Geraldine Carroll in Bangkok
"Thai authorities are negotiating with the gunmen"
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Nick Miles reports for BBC News
"The situation is extremely tense"
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Monday, 24 January, 2000, 15:52 GMT
Profile: God's Army
gods army leaders smoking
Johnny Htoo, left, and his twin, Luther
By the BBC's Southeast Asia analyst Larry Jagan

The gunmen who seized the hospital in Thailand are from an ethnic splinter group called God's Army.

They are a breakaway group from the main ethnic rebel army along the border - the Karen National Union.

Last October, Burmese dissidents briefly took over the Burmese embassy in Bangkok before being given safe passage to an area inside Burma controlled by God's Army.

Armed groups

God's Army is one of several new armed groups that have sprung up along the Thai-Burma border in the past few years.

Most of them are breakaway factions from existing ethnic rebel armies.

This one, led by twin 12-year-old boys, was formed some three years ago when Burmese villagers along the border feared that the Karen National Union were no longer able to protect them from attacks by the Burmese army.

man talks with policeman
A Karen guerrilla, left, talks from inside the Ratchaburi hospital fence with a Thai policeman
This followed the KNU's military retreat from several of its key bases along the border.

At the time, the twins Johnny and Luther Htoo are reported to have armed themselves with hand grenades and guns and sneaked into a village controlled by the Burmese army and opened fire, killing several soldiers.

The boys claimed to have done it to show the KNU how to fight the Burmese and their reputation grew from there.

'Mystical powers'

God's Army is now some 200 strong and its supporters believe the two boys have mystical powers.

There is a history of support for cults like this along the border.

children members of god's army
God's Army followers believe their leaders have special powers
God's Army has accused the Burmese army of raping and killing villagers along the Thai-Burma border.

Last December the group issued a statement justifying its decision to give shelter to five gunmen from another Burmese dissident group, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors.

The gunmen had taken part in the storming of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok last October.

The embassy siege ended peacefully and the gunmen were flown to the area controlled by the God's Army.

New offensive

In recent weeks the Burmese army has launched a fresh dry season offensive against the group.

According to sources along the border there has been intense fighting in the past month.

At the same time the Thai military along the border has been shelling the rebels' camp.

The Burmese Government has branded both groups as terrorists.

According to sources along the border God's Army has sustained severe casualties in the past two weeks.

They are anxiously seeking access to medical attention for their wounded guerrillas.

That seems to have been the main purpose for seizing the hospital. They wanted doctors from there to attend to their wounded.

Connected incidents

The similarity between the two actions has led observers to believe there is a connection between the embassy and hospital seizures.

They were both well planned and organised.

There are also reports that two of the gunmen involved in the embassy seizure were young Karen members of God's Army.

The demands of the gunmen in the hospital, for Thailand to open its borders to the Karen refugees, are the same as those of aid groups and human rights organisations working along the border.

However, the end result of this action is likely to make the Thai authorities less sympathetic to the concerns of the Burmese refugees sheltering in Thailand.

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See also:

02 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
Embassy gunmen flee
08 Aug 98 | Burma
Special report: Burma
06 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
Bangkok siege 'stank of conspiracy'
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