28 October, 2020

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CHOGM: Oh! Sweet-Smelling Humbug

By Bandu de Silva

Bandu De Silva

That is what I once used for a title of an article written eleven years ago and published in a daily newspaper. I owed the title to Peter Taylor, The Sunday Telegraph Foreign Editor who wrote immediately after CHOGM held in Bahamas. President J.R. Jayewardene, who represented Sri Lanka was very elated about the speech he made so much so when he stopped over in Paris for a week which I thought was to spend in my company, – I was his Ambassador to France and a number of other European countries – he wanted me to have the speech released to the French media. Knowing that French had no interest in what went on around Britain’s former colonies, except to keep New Zealand from protesting over French nuclear tests in the Southern Pacific and Australia trying get around Commonwealth countries to chase the French out of the islands, I could not find a French newspaper to lend a full page to a British-oriented affair – to a speech made by the head of a small former colony.

So I had to approach the French-Sri Lanka Friendship Group and the speech appeared in the form of ‘bought-up’ space in the prestigious Le Monde daily. Foreign Minister Hameed was not happy about it, for what reason I do not know but he dared not tell me because it was something that concerned the President. He made it known to me indirectly through one of his minions. The reason as I learnt was that one member of the Friendship group with whom the Minister was friendly, had protested over my use of the name of the friendship Group. She knew that it was I who had met the cost.

I can now tell the story because the Sri Lankan actors are not on the scene anymore. Hameed also did not know that when the Group hosted him at Lunch it was I who paid the bill. These are some of the diplomatic secrets. –Wikileak stuff-. Fortunately, I had little extra money at the time to play around to maintain the prestige of the country through the generosity of my wife who put her hand in her parental family kitty to support my work.

What about GHOGM? The Sunday Telegraph Editor questioned the ‘fragile credentials’ of the men who led the respective Commonwealth countries for moralizing among them. His caption was drawn from his remarks on Rajiv Gandhi’s attitude towards Sri Lanka, the interventionist policy of India. He spoke of Indian air force planes parachuting ‘humanitarian’ cargo –which as I have often remarked , the Le Monde correspondent in New Delhi, Patrice Claude, who travelled in the Indian transport planes escorted by missile carrying Mig jets claimed, were packed in plastic bags with labels showing ‘Cawnpour Ordnance Factory’. Claude and the Washington Post journalist who travelled with him reported that some packages were dropped on Tiger- held areas! Rajiv Gandhi had travelled thousands of miles to moralise to others. That was his record towards a small neighbour without defence. It was in those circumstances that President Jayewardene thought that his speech was important for dissemination.

The editor’s other comment was on the situation in Fiji where the ousted Prime Minister, was hanging around a hotel in London unable to get a response from the British government or the Commonwealth Secretariat. He had to be content with a meeting with Sidath Rampal. South Africa’s apartheid policy and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe were also on the mat. Taylor pointed out that CHOGM was being held in Bahamas when Prime Minister Sir Lyndon Pindling was embroiled in a drug scandal. What happened at Gabba-Gabba (near Brisbane) CHOGM in 2002? Curiously, there CHOGM had at its door-step, an  allegation against the Queen’s representative, the Governor –General, in a previous sex scandal. So why was the Canadian Prime Minister making such a hue and cry over holding CHOGM in Sri Lanka, raising issues that the Commonwelth at no time had raised openly? He was even seeing going to Bahamas this season for a pow-wow with leaders there. God knows about what!

Terrorism was high on the agenda in Commonwealth circles as much as in the western world just before the Gabba-Gabba Summit. What happened? Did the terrorism agenda get priority there? As I observed then what was left was only the name board after much of the substance on the terrorism agenda was watered down. Instead, older members of the Commonwealth were desperately trying to get the forum to endorse sanctions against Mugabe quoting violation of Harare principles.

Leaving the past behind, the Canadian Prime Minister was raising unnecessary issues over Sri Lanka’s record of alleged violation of human rights and humanitarian law in the war against terrorism in the island concluded four years back. These are only allegations, not substantiated. And they were raised at a different forum, not at Commonwealth. Considering the past records against which CHOGM were held, it was unnecessary excitement on the part of a senior member of the Commonwealth. The causative factor has to be sought in Canada’s own domestic electoral politics where the Diaspora accounts for a sizable influence. It is, however, a matter for relief that other older members like Britain, Australia and now New Zealand have stood by the decision to hold the Summit in Sri Lanka and new members are with her. Isn’t the priority to help Sri Lanka in rehabilitation of the North and East most ravaged by the 30 year war and to offer the billion dollars the west and Japan dangled over us when the war was on seeking a peaceful settlement? Why is that money not forthcoming now? Is it because these countries are deep economic recession now?

What concerns me as a former senior Foreign Office man is what Sri Lanka, is to know as the host country, and other member countries have decided as priority agenda items for the Colombo Summit. I consider it even as a right as much public money is going to be spent. There is no apartheid for the Commonwealth to flog as it was at the Bahamas session drowning India’s intervention in Sri Lanka and violation of her air space, or the terrorism issue at least on paper as it was at Gabba-Gabba. What have you heard? Hope Mugabe will not be brought back here to flog again!

I have heard nothing about preparations by way of agenda matters except Sri Lankan government reserving over 6000 hotel rooms, placing orders for a large number of limousines and talk of visits to Hambantota.  Are these then the indications of priorities for Colombo CHOGM on Sri Lanka’s part?  A photo-session show for family albums as one might say! I hope not! After spending so much money when the country has so many other priorities including northern development for which funds are lamentably in short supply and schools are closing down one by one for want of teachers and other facilities (That is just to mention only two), one would expect at least a substantial gain for the country intrinsically at least.

I suppose these show pieces –‘spectacles’ –(I use the French word here ) are also necessary  for a country, however much some people might protest. That is alright if it is going to serve a purpose. After the Non Aligned Summit Conference was held in Colombo much against local criticism, Sri Lanka got a boost in her international image. Mrs Bandaranaike became an international figure.

What will the CHOGM this time bring? Yes, some benefits for the tourism sector. We can show-piece a few ‘developments,’ northern development included. This  might appear to be unnecessary questions, however.

Alright! What is on the agenda for the Colombo confab? That is the main question. CHOGM is only three months or a little more away. That is not a long time. I remember how it was when the small time SAARC Summit was to be held here in 1900. I was the most senior diplomatic officer in the Foreign Office at that time. We had no rest answering queries from President Premadasa almost on a daily basis as to what initiatives we were proposing and how things were progressing. After initially refusing to participate in SAARC summit until IPKF was withdrawn, once that was accomplished, he went all out to ensure that the Conference was a success. That may be his personal approach. Perhaps, he was trying to remove the stigma of tagging on IPKF issue with the SAARC Summit which appeared a little childish.

Looking at it again, Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike had the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IPOZ) proposal to be tested at the Singapore Summit. That caught on later. As some of us insider’s thought, it was an Indian plant, getting Sri Lanka to hold the candle while India’s Navy was ready. And that is what transpired finally. Soviet Union went out. US was the singular World power in the uni-polar world. India also became US’s ally and even handling Police duties for her around Malay Straits. Against whom? Against the growing blue water ambitions of China, of course. IOPZ is forgotten now. The US has now  come to Maldives and India is silent. The US is also putting its nose in Trincomalee now with its ‘Corner’ –remember John Perkin’s ‘An Economic Hitman’ – in Urban Council premises. That is in a port that European nations used to spy on shipping of other nations which were in competition with them. That is not what I am saying but what is in Dutch records. Trincomalee is back on the radar, India, considering it part of her coastal defence.

There may be already agenda preparation for the November Summit going on at the Commonwealth Secretariat, though not transparently. But what have we to offer as host country? A good ‘Cuppa’ this time?  And playing the role of a good hotelier? Such impressions should be removed. The country has been capable of better initiatives in the past as described above.

Sri Lanka has got a beating at Geneva UNHR sessions. It was not a Commonwealth initiative there but western countries and others including two  Commonwealth countries, India and Nigeria voted for the US sponsored resolution Malaysia abstained. That subject may not be stolen into the discussion here as it had not been an issue at Commonwealth level. In Gabba-Gabba, as I pointed out at that time was held soon after President Kumaratunga‘s government had conducted an election bloodied by violence and bloodshed but it did not draw attention as Mugabe’s occupation of white farms. I even wondered whether it was the reason why the President did not attend that Summit.

As I see even today Sri Lanka is not incapable of taking initiatives but she is constrained by the Indian factor and wanting to appease US which country is hammering us at all round.

Isn’t the peoples’ participation important? If not are the people to consider CHOGM as another event where some international personalities meet, discus, raise their glasses and go away, without people of the country knowing anything of what was happening, but will be eventually footing the bill in devious ways. Isn’t that what happened even at Gabba-Gabba  too a few years back?

What I would like to ask finally, is what is our own Foreign Office doing?  At least readying a good speech for the President to deliver as President Jayewardene did in Bahamas? I still have a copy in French. Are they preparing a programme which will compensate for the expenditure on the “spectacle”? When I speak of a good programme, I am thinking in terms of cost-benefit?  Or Am I wrong? Is that obsolete economics in the new would- be “Las Vegas” country, as some reports say?

P.S.: Since the article was written the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka opened a website on CHOGM.

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Latest comments

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    Very funny; Leaving smells aside, this whole article itself is full of nothing but Sweet Humbug.

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    The author doesn’t seem to know what has been happening in the last 50 months, leave alone the last 50 years, on both sides of the fence at Omanthai.

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    The immoral Commonwealth must be phased out and the overbloated UN must be streamlined to be transparent, accountable, effective and efficient.

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    “Fortunately, I had little extra money at the time to play around to maintain the prestige of the country through the generosity of my wife who put her hand in her parental family kitty to support my work.”

    SL Foreign Ministry take urgent note:
    It should be ordained by official statute that future candidates for consideration to the SL Foreign Service are (happily) married to women of wealth who are in a position to bail out the prestige of the country in times of need, especially when the Foreign Office coffers are drained dry through deceitful intent or ambassadorial design. The qualifications of the prospective candidate is only secondary to this urgent need of saving face for this third world country which needs to maintain its prestige among the international circuit as the Miracle of Asia.

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    Mottapala,
    All journalism is nothing but humbug, some sweet, some corrosive,the latter,as you aught to know very well! Why did this man take to it after leaving his former serious profession?

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    What a coy admission; all this time we were of the impression that all our diplomats did for this country was lie abroad, but now we are told that they also spend their own money to save face for their political masters. What if his wife didn’t have ‘a family kitty’ to dip into?

    SL should have turned its back on this ‘commonwealth’ charade immediatley after breaking free of the shackles of Britain in 1948. Truth is that there are still influential numbers of brown sahibs who crave the opportunity to rub shoulders with the old masters. When will they ever learn?

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    A good article by a former man of the foreign office. Beside the tidbits revealed behind the glamour, the writer asks the question what the host’s statement will be at this instalment of the game. The host can only showcase the spectacle of tourist potential. Unfortunately, the evidence of a democratic and socialist country slowly but surely rising out of the cruelty of war is not visible to showcase, nor can a credible presidency be up for display.

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      The writer does a disservice to the President here. This president did what no other president was able to do; bring peace from terror to SL. Other governments prevaricated for too long and allowed our people to be terrorised by an organisation, self-appointed, at the barrel of a gun, as the leaders of the tamil community, who trod with impunity over the country. For keeping this promise, President Rajapakse was rewarded with a handsome majority at the last election and, we would do well to remember, is democratically elected.

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    My reference to using personal resources to maintain the land’s image has become a cause for grim humour for some bloggers trying to hide under others’ names.The hard times we had to face abroad after the July 1983 riots and the work accomplished under difficult circumstances should not be forgotten.Hence this long explanation.

    The use of personal resources to maintain overseas missions is not confined to this isolated incident in Sri Lanka.The US often selects its Ambassadors to certain Capitals on the capability of their funding. My contemporary Amb of US to France was a case in point.On the US National Day at the Amb’s Residence I found special officers placed to take guests around to show the new Ambassador and his wife’s personal inputs by funding the improvement of the sprawling garden and and the building of the Amb’s residence.The point was made that the premises were not so good-looking earlier.So,the US Embassy even made a display of the fact.
    Our situation in Paris was so bad that one previous Amb.(Dr,Sarachchandra) had to get a few Sri Lankan volunteers to apply a coat of paint to the leased building which was his official Residence before he moved in. The building had been run down after over 20 years occupation and due to lack of maintenance.(He wrote about it in his book).The next Amb.had to abandon the place. Such was the situation in our overseas missions.

    When Prez Jayeawardene appointed new Ambassadors after July 1983 riots,asking them to turn the tables in favour of Sri Lanka whose image had got a beating, and do it soon,no brief was available.Ambassadore were told they weer selected for their competence and asked to device their own means.
    Paris Embassy was in a hopeless situation.It had become the centre of Tamil-overseas insurgent activity. Two murders of Sinhalese and beatings, razor attacKs by Tamil gangs at Underground stations were taking place daily. The Embassy itself has had to seek Police protection at its expense. The staff was in fear as gangs had come to the Embassy threatening the two female diplomatic and other staff.
    Tamil Militants were printing newspapers weekly and distributing through Newspaperstands in the City which they had taken over. They maintained an Information Centre with a 24 Taped Telephone answering service giving news on Sri Lanka including battle field news. Groups of them were visiting newspaper offices and getting their news published. The demonstrated on the streets six days a week,one group each day, and converged near the Embassy.

    To meet this situation,My predecessor had only a hand operated ‘Galachuva’ Roneo machine with which he had been sending out a news sheet fortnightly based on stale news received from the Ministry (over one month old).These as I was told went straight into the ‘Pubels’ at newspaper offices, as News Editors later confessed to me.
    How could these put to right without even the basic office equipment?This is where some personal inputs had to be made immediately, as there was no prospects funds forthcoming from a tight Budget in the Ministry.Even working under Dr Sarachchandra earlier, I remember gifted an Alfred Meaking Tea serving set I bought in London for his official guests as he complained there was only a single cup available. Hilariously, at that time, when I met a group of French journalists to advice on arrangements for the Non-Aligned Summit, the Office-Aide who served Tea had used a broken cup which he had bonded together and the cup fell on a female journalist’s lap spoiling her dress!Sarachchchandra later referred to this in his novel, “With the Begging Bowl”
    In 1984, the Embassy premises had be secured, partitioned using bullet proof material.

    Above all, media had to be given hot news and interpretations on a daily basis.The archaic News Letter system would not do. I got on to my friends in the Sri Lankan media to obtain a daily account where the Foreign Ministry/Govt.Information failed. This media contact was my strong point everywhere. At the time of the Indian air intrusion I was on the phone to Abdul Atthas.He asked me to hold on and listen to what his correspondent from Jaffna was saying.I issued the news to the French media before the international media could get it on wire services. That is how we got a sympathetic press there after.

    The media had to be coaxed. This also cost money,to entertain them, to offer a meal to gain a lunch-time chat.That had to be done in Restaurants. Media men were very demanding. Called for the best of wines!

    All these expenses had to be met initially, through personal resources. Later, on a report sent by me, President sent Wckrama Wersooria, to examine and report on the needs of our missions. Wickram’s first stop was Paris.It was after that the mission/Residence were provided with Television sets,Monitoring equipment, photo copying machines,Telex, surveillance Cameras and I was reimbursed with some of the major expenses. I must say, Secretary, W.T.Jayasinghe who appreciated what I was doing,reimbursed me of entertainment costs of media personnel when I sent the bills.I had to do P/R work in other cities like Lille,the City of former Prime Minister, where i held an impressve one week’s Exhibition which was extended two weeks at the Mayor’s request till the arrval of the Mexican President. Similar work was conducted in Bordeaux, Marselles, Nice and other adjacent ciities by pooling funds with the Tourist Board and Air Lanka. These included lunches/dinners to over 200-300 invitees.All this contributed image building.
    If one took the least path of resistance,then one knows how long it would have taken. When Prez Jayewardene stopped in Paris after Bahamas visit,I had to arrange a meeting of all our Ambassadors in Europe there for the President to review progress made. he was very satisfied with the achievements under difficult circumstances.Secy. Jayasinghe had to come from Colombo.Minister Gamini Dissanaike and Secy. Manikdiwela were at hand.

    Today, the govt has appointed PR Firms at a great cost to do this work.They do the thinking and planning, and some of the Ambassadors are mere appendages, some conducting tour groups to Colombo. Embassies are are linked with the Ministry Website. It may not be easy to perceive the hard times we had to face in the198os and the work accomplished under difficult circumstances.

    I must say, that along with these measures, the steps I took to enhance the efficiency of the mission and esp. to look into the needs of Tamil residents brought encouraging response from Sri Lankans including Tamil youth. I found them very courteous to me when I met them on the lift or on the streets.

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      You play a very plaintive violin in mitigation of the hard times of you and other SL diplomats. What you take as ‘grim humour’ by responders is not really funny. The sad joke is on the governments of Sri Lanka who for many years ran a step-motherly foreign service. There is much evidence of hopeless service from our missions; but this is not the place to elaborate on that subject. We must not fall into the eternal trap of trying to compare ourselves to others; least of all the US. We should set our own standards, be proud of them, and stand by them. The simple truth is that many of our missions are under-funded, unprofessional and unfit for purpose. There are exceptions, I grant. But too many of our diplomats have anguished at having been taken for ministerial and presidential fixers during the many visits of our great and good to foreign capitals. For too long the successive Governments of SL have under-funded missions even to extent that basic maintenance of buildings and offices have led to Bandu and colleagues having to resort to shramadana to keep things going. And now, the ultimate insult, thousands are paid to foreign consultants to do what should rightly be done by our own.

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    “Will CHOGM turn sour for the Rajapaksa govt”?

    This is a question that has been posed to me by several readers who did not wish to use the C/T blog. These personal E-Mails,however,need to be answered and I prefer to do it openly so that others also could read my views and scrutinise them critically.
    As a former diplomatic observer I find that CHOGM likes to be in the limelight or ‘shine’ its message.It had all along, in recent times picked on several ‘bashing’ points which included, apartheid’, military rule in Pakistan,Fiji strongman’s undemocratic methods and Mugabe’s policies.As I said, Mugabe was very much on the dock in Gaba-Gabba in Queensland.Chandrika Kumaratunga who had held a bloody election on the eve of the CHOGM in Queensland escaped because it was a single incident which had not been repetitive like Apartheid or Mugabe’s land grab from white farmers. However,Kumaratunga feared to appear there with blood stained hands thinking it might be attract attention. Not that she disliked rubbing shoulders with the royalty and CW leaders.I still recall how President Mandela received her saying “New hope of Asia.” Wheteher she lived up to that expectation is not for us to discuss here.So she sent Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando though he was not from her ranks.

    On this basis, I can expect the Commonwealth leaders, especially those of former white colonies,to look for a ‘whipping boy’ on the forthcoming occasion too.
    What is there presently in the horizon?Though there had been no Commonwealth initiative,if one looks carefully,one that is likely to catch on, is Sri Lanka’s record on human rights and humanitarian issues which have been raised at several Geneva sessions, where on the last two sessions, resolutions were adopted against Sri Lanka. Nigeria voted for the Resolution whle Malaysia abstained.
    As Prime Minister David Cameron’s letter to the All Party Parliamentary Group in Britain published in Colombo Telegraph, under news on 12 July 2013,Cameron claims that Britain co-sponsored the US Resolution.One may tend to take Cameron’s reply to APPG with some reservation as he was only defending the govt’s decision to join the CHOGM session in Colombo which the APPG opposed.

    However, Cameron’s intentions are quite clear.He says that he fully intends to make concrete proposals to press for “upholding the continuation of Commonwealth values, democracy, freedom,peace and the Rule of Law”. He says further that he and the Foreign Secretary would take the opportunity to “deliver a tough message” to GOSL.

    This is,of course,the intention of the British govt.at present.As one could see there is a caveat to the statement. That is the hope that other members would be of equal mind.
    The British intentions are coloured by her electoral politics where the Diaspora accounts for a sizable section of many electorates. Whether other Commonwealth members would be ready to fall in line with her aspiration for that reason remains doubtful, however much she may try to make a general issue of issues like the status of democracy,freedom,peace and the Rule of Law, in Sri Lanka. These values are respected in varied degrees in different Commonwealth countries and if Sri Lanka is seen,falling behind others in these respects,it could be even a matter of degree, rather than total abdication. the answer may, then, lie in not castigating her as Cameron proposes,but helping her overcome these.A confrontational stand by the Commonwealth members is not likely to lead anywhere.I suggested a Commonwealth Fund like what the Tokyo Round initiative proposed during the war.Sri Lanka’s problem is not all looking into past and present human rights record and humanitarian issues but also coping with rehabilitation and development in war affected areas including the border areas which suffered.The progress made needs to be assessed and supported.

    The Commonwealth has always been divided on castigating members as the division among old [white]members and others which surfaced in Gabba -Gabba over action on Robert Mugabe’s policies showed. On the more important issue of terrorism,despite Commonwealth Secretariat’s valuable inputs, the final decisions at Gabba-Gabba were lukewarm and failed to touch the core of the issue.
    With Britain leading,it could be expected that attempts would be made to deliver a tough message to Sri Lanka.Whether other members would fall in line will depend not only on their country situation and how they see Coomonwealth’s role but also the way the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry has succeeded in taking its own message to them.I see the President has recently visited Uganda, Seyshells, and Tanzania and the Foreign Minister has visited others.These are good diplomatic moves but the field to be covered was more extensive.In my own small diplomatic endeavours I paid attention to the smallest members and that stood in good stead. I recall President Chandrika Kumatarunga sent several Ministerial delegations around the world to muster support for her relative Senaka Bandaranayake for the post of Director General of UNESCO to receive only two votes,if I remember right.What a colossal waste of public funds, it was, on a foolish venture even before the man discovered the corridors of UNESCO? That was President Kumaratunga’s ways. This being so, there is no reason why the govt should back out in an important issue like the CHOGM agenda.
    It may be that the govt is confident that there may be no strong moves to bring in the Geneva issues here at the CHOGM. This may be right to some extent because this is a different forum whose princple objective is upholding Commonwealth values rather than country bashing as was what finally resulted in Geneva,(There is no buying of influence here as the US did in Geneva),as it has proved so far, except that old members stood together in Mugabe bashing.

    The country to watch is India. That is again for reasons of India’s state politics: which in,final analysis,is keeping the emerging powerful state of Tamil Nadu,which has self-acquired its own foreign policy making, within the Indian federation. Whether other Commonwealth members will fall in line with her is an open question.It is here that Sri Lanka should be seen actively making counter moves.From present indications, the Govt seems to have compromised its declared once high profile stand on the need to amend the 13th Amendment in face of Indian pressure. That is taking CHOGM as being of greater importance to the country than its internal issue. This is where some may disagree with the govt if the present indications are right. This is why my calling CHOGM a “sweet humbug” is very appropriate. It will bring some immediate benefit to the ruling click than long term benefit to the country.The country’s long term interest is being sacrificed to keep India contended. But India has already thrown her lot with the US, her new strategic ally,and others, as her Geneva vote on two occasions demonstrated.Though India seems to have threatened of putting more pressure, the worst has happened with her Geneva vote.
    President Rajapaksa’s present position on CHOGM and the 13th Amendment can be aptly described in terms of the proverbial man who faced two deaths (Marana -dekak)in the Sinhalese folk poem. That is the result of entering a well in greed for a honey-comb, but had to face the prospect of being bitten by the serpent below in the well but yet would not leave the greed for the honey comb!

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    WELL, WELL, THAT WAS QUITE A REVEALING RESPONSE. ANY TAKERS?

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    Shameless Rajafuksas.

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