4 July, 2022

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Sri Lanka In The Chalk Circle

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Without gas, without kerosene oil, we can’t do anything. Last option what? Without food we are going to die. That will happen hundred percent.” ~ Mohammad Shazly a part-time chauffer, Colombo (Reuters – 20.5.2022)

An old man walks down a road, snowy haired, thin to the point of gauntness, bespectacled. He clutches a white cane in one hand; the other steadies the gas cylinder he is bearing on his frail shoulders. That one picture, probably taken from a phone, portrays better than a thousand words or figures our current condition.

The Rajapaksa-made crisis affects all Lankans, but not in the same way and not to the same degree. The greatest burden is borne not by the upper or the middle classes but by the old and the new poor. For them, the crisis is a battle for survival in the most literal sense. They have little time or patience for the political arguments which engages those of us for whom the crisis is not yet (and may never be) a matter of life and death. As a man who had been waiting in a Colombo queue for hours for cooking gas told the NDTV, “We don’t mind Ranil or Basil or whoever… We want solutions to our people. We don’t mind Ranil come back or Mahinda come back. We want solutions to our people. That’s it.”

Parliamentarian Mujibar Rahuman this week gave voice to the pain and despair of Colombo’s old and new poor. He also sounded a dire and accurate warning of the consequences of their anger. He asked the new Prime Minister about the steps taken to alleviate the plight of these most vulnerable communities. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s answer didn’t inspire confidence. He talked of the global food crisis and said the issue would be studied by a committee next week (hopefully not the committee headed by Vajira Abeywardane).

The impending global food crisis is real. There’s another global development the IMF warned about this week which Mr. Wickremesinghe and his motley crew of ministers should pay close attention to – greater social unrest caused mainly by steep increases in food and fuel prices. In Sri Lanka, massive price increases are compounded by a near total unavailability of items essential to the maintenance of modern life, especially in urban settings. Add to that the non-availability of fertiliser for this season leading to a collapse of agriculture and a resultant food shortage, and all the ingredients are present for the cauldron to boil over.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s record of wantonly destroying every chance history handed him is unprecedented, his ability to self-destruct, taking down his side with him, legendary. Still, I hope he succeeds in pulling Sri Lanka out of the economic morass the Rajapaksas led her into. And I fear the consequences of his failure, most of which will have to be borne by those like the old man in the picture.

The economic crisis has morphed into a political crisis, but addressing the immediate economic needs of the masses – the shortages of fuel and cooking gas – cannot await the resolution of any of the political issues, be it sending Gota home or abolishing the executive presidency or holding elections (all of which are necessary).

A new credit line is the lifeline we need desperately; if it comes, it will come with conditions which we are in no position to refuse. As the old adage warned, beggars can’t be choosers, not if they want to live. Without dollars to pay for essential imports, the country will grind to a halt. Innumerable lives will be endangered in the most literal sense and the public that has borne much will say enough. The first signs of the impending outbreak are visible in the impromptu road closures and the stopping of fuel tankers. When a dam breaks, the water sweeps over everything in its path. That could be Sri Lanka, soon.

When the tanks rolled in

A group of online activists called a day of protest on Sunday, April 3rd. The Gotabaya-Mahinda-Basil regime, unnerved by the Mirihana incident, imposed a curfew.

For the first time in Lankan history, ordinary people ignored the curfew, pouring out into the streets in their thousands. Across the country, men, women, and children, entire families marched out of their homes, holding handmade placards, chanting slogans and singing. Nothing could dampen their enthusiasm, not the heavy police presence or the equally heavy thundershowers. By that night, the Galle Face was full of mostly middle class youth from Colombo and suburbs, demanding the president’s resignation. Faced by hundreds of thousands of curfew breakers, the police could do little. The curfew was not extended, and the emergency removed a couple of days later.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa re-imposed the curfew, on May 9th, while SLPP thugs were attacking Gota-go-gama protestors. Across the nation, the curfew was ignored, this time not by peaceful protestors but by marauding mobs.

On May 10th, President Gotabaya called in the military. The next day, tanks rolled down streets, manned by fully armed and stony faced soldiers. The visuals would have chilled any democratic-minded citizen to the bone. As the military took over urban centres and rural towns, a silence fell. There was no public outcry; thousands of people did not pour into the streets in peaceful protests as they had done on April 3rd.

The difference in public reaction was made up of the counter-violence that broke out after the wanton attacks on Gota-go-gama and Maina-go-gama protest encampments. Had the reaction to the regime’s criminal onslaught been non-violent, had the streets been filled with peaceful protestors instead of rampaging mobs, the subsequent events might have taken a different turn. Gotabaya Rajapaksa prevailed because the mob violence gave him the opportunity to call in the troops.

By the time the tanks rolled in, the public was exhausted and fearful of both types of violence, and confused about the future. The feel-good factor that characterised the protests from the beginning was gone. That mood of felicity couldn’t have survived the Nittambuwa lynching. Though the full horror of that incident was not known (the parliamentarian and his protection officer had been beaten to death as the post-mortem revealed), the pictures of the bodies, stripped and lying on the road, were enough to cause a sense of shock and shame.

Perhaps a different outcome was possible. When an attempt was made – obviously by Rajapaksa agents – to ignite a religious conflagration in Negambo, the response from the larger protest movement was swift and unequivocal. This timely and decisive intervention was seminal in preventing Negambo from exploding. Had there been a similar response at least after the Nittambuwa lynching, the subsequent mob violence could have been avoided. The protestors could have retained the moral highground, and the regime deprived of an excuse to call the military in.

What if, instead of toppling vehicles and pushing the captured thugs into Beira Lake, (and stripping them), the protestors treated these Rajapaksa stooges with civility and handed them over either to the media or the police? Such an example could have set the tone for subsequent public reactions. Then again, these same protestors chased away Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake when they went to Galle Face immediately after the attack on Gota-go-gama. Surely, if their presence was unwelcome, they could have been told so politely, and asked to leave? What are we, in the absence of such basic civility and tolerance?

A measured response didn’t happen, and the resultant fires burnt out the political component of mass anger. A nation of peaceful protestors was changed back into a nation of onlookers who watched mutely as the military took over public spaces. It was a time of a deadly political vacuum. The PM has resigned. There was no government, only a politically weakened President Gotabaya and the military, an institution still trusted by a majority of the people, according to the penultimate CPA survey. By accepting the premiership while Sajith Premadasa was dithering, Ranil Wickremesinghe might well have saved civilian rule. He may also have saved the Gotabaya presidency in the process. But then even a President Gotabaya is preferable to a military junta.

Mass political protests are finished for now. Gota-go-gama survives, but mostly as a relic of an age of innocence lost forever. The political initiative belongs to PM Wickremesinghe and his seriously underwhelming cabinet, though not for long. If they can semi-normalise the distribution of fuel and gas in the coming week, they and the country will gain a much needed breathing space. If they fail, mass violence might break out, not organised by any party, but stemming from the unbearable anguish and uncontainable rage of the people.

And once again, Sri Lanka will teeter on the edge of two interconnected abysses – mob rule and military rule, violent anarchy and violent dictatorship.

Grusha or Natella?

In his first public address as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe compared the task he had taken upon himself to Grusha’s perilous journey on the rotten bridge across the glacier. There is another scene in Brecht’s iconic play that corresponds more exactly to the current Lankan condition. That comes in Act 5, when Azdek the judge orders the child Michael to be placed in the centre of a chalk circle and decrees that he will belong to the woman who pulls him out of the circle first.

Natella, the governor’s wife and the birth mother who abandoned the child pulls him out, twice. Grusha, the servant girl who saved him at the risk of her life, refuses to pull him, for she can’t bear to hurt him. Natella wants something from the child (access to her dead husband’s properties); Grusha wants something for the child, a life lived as a compassionate human being and not a brutal oppressor.

Sri Lanka is that child now, caught between many Natellas with no Grusha in sight. Unlike Michael, we bear considerable responsibility for our own plight. Gota must go home, for he is the chief author of our tragedy. But he sits right because he can cling to the massive mandate we gave him. We elected a silly little showman with a Hitler complex and now we are saddled with him. Rejecting all 225 parliamentarians is a fad now, but other than national list members, everyone else of that despised tribe were also elected by us.

Chamal Rajapaksa rightly faulted brother Mahinda for not bowing out of politics after his defeat at the 2015 Presidential election. Had he done so, there would have been no Mahinda Sulanga, no SLPP, no President Gotabaya. Sri Lanka would have muddled along as she did for 72 years, with some successes and many failures. Rajapaksa greed brought us all to this pass, but it was we the people who gave them the chance to wreck Sri Lanka. Understanding our own culpability is necessary to prevent a repeat. If we don’t realise and accept the role we played in our own downfall, we will elect another set of venal incompetents at the next election.

Gota won’t go and there’s no constitutional path to oust him fast, so the only option is to defang him via a 21st Amendment and to hold a referendum on the presidential system in tandem with the next parliamentary election. But there’s a kind of a use value in Gota refusing to go home. So long as he clings to the presidency, people will remember the true authors of their unbearable suffering. If he’s gone, the role of the Rajapaksas will be forgotten gradually, and the blame heaped on whoever is governing, be it Ranil, Sajith, Anura or anyone else.

After a few months of non-Rajapaksa rule, Mahinda Rajapaksa will claim that he had a plan, but couldn’t implement it due to national and international conspiracies. And quite a few of those who are now clamouring for Gota’s departure now will scratch their collective heads then muttering, That is also true (Ekath aththa). There might not be another Mahinda Sulanga but a Mahinda Madanala (Mahinda Breeze) is a distinct possibility under such circumstances. Allowing a defanged Gotabaya Rajapaksa to cling to the presidency until the worst of the crisis is over might make political sense, given Lankan public’s well known capacity to swing from one extreme to another in short oder.

In the final act of the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a song reflecting Grusha’s hopes for the child ends with the line that she wants him to fear darkness but not the night.

Last night, the house of an IOC fuel station owner in Kekirawa was torched, allegedly by people who could not purchase fuel. That is our darkness.

Yesterday, an internet post reported that in Walgama, residents provided those in a fuel queue overnight with biscuits, tea, and even breakfast.

That is our light.

We need dollars urgently. We also need to find and cling to ordinary everyday decency, kindness, and empathy that are in us. We can either become Grushas and be kind to each other or turn into Natellas and tear each other apart.

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Latest comments

  • 12
    0

    Sri Lanka In The Chalk Circle

    225 so call national leaders and election promisse to improve the living standard end putting Sri Lanka In The Chalk Circle & In not seen in history Still they bring to this situation they all in drama of hording self benit did no know untill there trouser fall down Now indian by less privelage have collected provision as of syphethetic understanding and disposion of life Sri lankan perceptive in front of the world.

    • 10
      0

      I would be happier, if my eyes could believe srilanken politicians would be carrying his/her cookin ggas cylinder on his/her shoulder. Ironically, people too are to be blamed – recent incidents made it very clear, there are still whole lot of portions in this god punished country that get misled each time whenever they get to hear /see Radio/TV are the truths.So, it is not thati fault but fake public perception continues the circle. Even among the youth today, they dont seem to think before passing it further to someone, but trust any lower remarks being on YOUTUBERs. Sepal Amarasinghe is literally a man who spread his YT videos just because it has become his only means for the revenues.
      These men are dollar greedy men, but dont think twice before taking revenge on anyone. Breeding of YOUTUBERs today is seen everywhere.
      .
      Should these people like the one on the display bear this much of burden if politicians did their job well in SL ?
      :

  • 5
    38

    Thisaranee: Which planet do you live on? were you ever a leftist that you support the IMF and Washington’s economic hit men?!!
    Sri Lanka, was listed as the second wealthiest county in South Asia, an upper Middle Income Country by the World Bank just 3 years ago. What happened??!
    As the Ukraine crisis and a Global Cold War escalates into a hot war in Asia, Sri Lanka at the center of the Indian Ocean is being targeted by the US and its allies in a Hybrid Economic War – this is Full Spectrum Dominance (FSD). and Over the Horizon (OTH) operation, to colonize and control Lanka in order to monitor the Indian Ocean sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC).
    IMF is NOT the solution but the problem. the dollar shortage and default is so that Washington and the IMF can asset strip and colonize it using IMF as a front. This is the real story. Please wake up and study GEOPOLITICS in the Indian Ocean.., SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated because he nationalized the ports and airports of this strategic island from the British. Please read the book” Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia.

    • 19
      1

      “Gota won’t go and there’s no constitutional path to oust him fast, so the only option is to defang him via a 21st Amendment and to hold a referendum on the presidential system in tandem with the next parliamentary election.”
      That’s the absolute reality. Those who shout for him to go must realise that he won an election not long ago. The solution for any future recurrence of this situation is to introduce, as in some countries, a recall clause, so that legislators can be removed if enough citizens sign a petition. But will that happen? Just as unlikely as anti-crossover legislation.
      In the meantime, Gota is just a tired old man, abandoned by his Viyathmaga, and willing to listen to Ranil’s ideas. He’s not likely to make trouble.

    • 5
      1

      We are in planet reality, and you ?? After viewing the picture of that poor oldman struggling to carry the cylinder, this is the best you could come up .with

      • 3
        1

        The above massage is addressed to Dinuk “” Thisaranee which planet you live in ???”

    • 12
      1

      Dinuk
      Don’t you think the biggest economic hitman in Sri Lanka is Mahinda Rajapaksa?
      He legalised corruption, got all the crooked politicians to support him, gave them all manner of illicit businesses to control, weaponized Buddhism, fueled religious dichotomy, oppressed the minorities and basically turned the country upside down.
      With a guy like MR in SL politics, do you think the so-called west needs to lift a finger to destroy a country like SL?
      SL has been in self destruct mode thanks to Mara and Co. For the past 13 years.
      Mara has played every dirty game in the book like a mafia boss, to milk the system and steal as much money as possible, the effects of which are now being felt.
      Don’t always go so far and spin conspiracy theories and all when all the answers to our plight is right under our noses.

    • 11
      1

      Dinuk

      Your hypothesis, if I can call it that, of a first world conspiracy, orchestrated by the US, seems to be solely based on a book with unsubstantiated claims. Books are written to make money & the juicer it is with astonishing conspiracy theories, the better it is for night time reading & making it into the best seller list. I prefer to accept facts from credible journalistic sources, & I am sure many others too.

  • 21
    1

    Dinuk,
    “Sri Lanka, was listed as the second wealthiest county in South Asia, an upper Middle Income Country by the World Bank just 3 years ago. What happened??!”
    This is the real question every one is asking what happened within three years. That means between 2019 and 2022. Every one understand IMF or India or China or West are not the solution but what is the solution. We know IMF did not come until now, So the problem is not created by IMF. Ukrain crisis only started just 3 or 4 months before and it did not affect Sri lanka alone and that cannot be the reason for becoming bankcruptcy. Who governed this country within the past three years. It is Rajapaksa Family who took control of this country? Rajapaksa family now accepts that it is their behaviour, their policies brought this bankgruptcy. Rajapaksa family may be part of America’s secret strategy or China’s secret strategy or India’s secret strategy who know’s?

  • 1
    14

    Fitch downgrades credit rating yet again. British FCDO warns its citizens who to travel to Sri Lanka their travel insurance will be voided. This appears orchestrated. Harin Fernando and Manisha could also be taking orders from a foreign govt against the interests of SL.

  • 2
    1

    Dinuk

    Your hypothesis, if I can call it that, of a first world conspiracy, orchestrated by the US, seems to be solely based on a book with unsubstantiated claims. Books are written to make money & the juicer it is with astonishing conspiracy theories, the better it is for night time reading & making it into the best seller list. I prefer to accept facts from credible journalistic sources, & I am sure many others too.

  • 9
    1

    Not just a 21st amendment, but there should also be a new rule– an upper limit for holding public office, including for MPs, PM, and the President.

    Let parliament reach a consensus on the right age, but I would suggest 70. Isn’t it ironic that Chamal, who is older than MR, is clinging to his position while admonishing MR about his greed for power?

    Then Gota, Basil, CR, RW, Dinesh, Sirisena, GL, et al., should go into retirement and then face any legal challenges on alleged corruption, war crimes, etc., in a court of law as private citizens. On the Tamil side, let Sampanthan and Senathirajah likewise retire. New leaders can seek their advice as needed. I first began to speak against gerontocracy while JRJ was President in the 1980s, so don’t assume I am bringing up a new issue.

  • 2
    2

    The Rajapaksa-made crisis affects all Lankans
    —-
    Yes Rajapaksa made crisis that began in 2020, with full support from the media, screaming for lockdowns.

  • 1
    1

    Fitch downgrades as it dose not accept defaulters even from Greece,and FCDO is under an obligation to its citizens to evacuate….what tourist without petrol and electricity anyway. As the politicians say the fault is never ours !!
    Apart from reacting to shortages, there is little appetite here to debate culpability or political ideology, Systemic change is crucial . If the 6.9 plus RW is equals democracy. IMF and transparency international may be fooled by our masters or even blamed to be a western conspiracy by homegrown pundits and apologists.
    If you can buy gas to cook but tear gas dissenters is an option. After all the Attorney General looks dazed and will nothing about prosecution as he looks frightened anyway.
    I am wondering who has got the brains, the politician or the voter ?
    With the Hitler we wanted and Winston Churchill who wanted us, now on the same side of the inner chalk circle, we can defensively distort the picture but not the end result.
    History can become interesting fiction for the imaginative mind but sadly for the man in the picture,it could be our parent. Compassion and accountability would be nice.
    .
    Apologies to Bertolt Brecht

  • 7
    2

    All of Ranil’s ‘A” team has not got into the Chalk circle yet. As good friends of prophet Ranil they should come and strengthen Ranil’s hands.

    Ranil needs the financial wizardry of chubby Mahendran , sly expertise of Paski of Swiss bank repute, pretentious nonsense of brothers Charith and Suren at Srilankan and of course the wheeler dealing of Malik.

    What are friends for ?

    The prophet is going to turn the country around ! ( having failed to do anything for 30 years !)

    About time Ranil started flying around the world ( he loves it, with his super English he can talk to world leaders) .

    Also don’t forger weekend getaways at the Bentota beach house with the pretty ‘boy’ with the brains in the right place

  • 7
    6

    The image of the old man carrying the cylinder is a bit of an overkill. Besides the white cane suggests that his vision is impaired.
    It has to be an empty cylinder, as even a young delivery person makes an effort to lift a full cylinder shoulder high.

    • 4
      5

      In that case, two avoidable deaths are reported due to the prevailing situation. A newborn infant died because of parent not able to get fuel to get to nearest hospital in time and an adult died because the son could not get the life saving medicine. Is this an overkill ?? Does a white cane make a person any younger ??? Does it matter the cylinder is full or empty ??? Is this your usual “victimizing the victim” comment.

      • 3
        2

        It can also be high theatre– nothing to do with the ‘victim’ but for suckers who get sentimental.
        I am not sure about people where you live, but I know this society well enough to know that, despite all the violence and brutality before it, nobody will let a fragile semi-disabled man walk the street with such a load on his shoulder.
        *
        The comment was aimed at confidence tricksters. They are the bane of journalism all over. (Thankfully you are not the trickster this time, but only an apologist.)
        *
        ps. Have you given upon language lessons?

        • 2
          3

          I am relieved to see the empathy in you ( I was not sure ). A reputed journalist who we know well, has written this article with attached picture. It’s you, assuming high theater and bane of journalism. There is no need for TG to attempt such things. These are unusual time and hence desperate situations are expected. ( it may turn much worse soon) . Just because you haven’t faced, does not mean it ain’t happening. You just have to get out of your arm chair to know the reality. Stop generalizing and stereotyping. Have you given up on “victimizing the victims”??

    • 4
      1

      I don’t know what is the message this young professor trying to say?

      • 5
        3

        Do not even try. It is beyond you.

      • 2
        3

        Ajith, between a fearless journalist and retired professor, we the sentimental suckers know who is reliable and credible. It can also be ?? dont know where you’ll live but I know the society like no other, no body will let ?? Do I need to say more.

        • 2
          1

          Do please say more by all means and reveal your ignorance.

  • 7
    4

    “We don’t mind Ranil come back or Mahinda come back. We want solutions to our people. That’s it.”
    This sums up our tragedy.
    It was the very attitude that brought JRJ to power with a 5/6 majority.

    • 7
      1

      It was the same very attitude brought Rajapaksa family with a 5/6 majority in 2019.

      • 0
        4

        Not quite.
        It was disgust with Yahapalanaya.
        But people often do not see beyond their noses, be it to support the Rajapaksas or the LTTE or TNA (add names as you wish).

        • 3
          1

          Pathetic Disgust with China with Rajapaksa Communism..

  • 4
    4

    “The Rajapaksa-made crisis “
    “Sri Lanka out of the economic morass the Rajapaksas led her into”
    *
    They precipitated a crisis that was a long time coming.
    The economy never really look up, and the crisis was building since the open economic policy joined hands with an avoidable civil war.

    • 5
      1

      It is true the crisis was building up since the “Sinhala only” act brought by closed economic policy of SLFP and ” left joined forces with the SLFP and adopted the “Dudleyge Bade Masala Vadai” protest.

      • 1
        3

        How difficult is it for you to make a pertinent remark?

        • 1
          3

          BTW
          What did the father of Tamil federalism (thamilarasu thanthai) and his disciples do in a government with strange bedfellows like KMP Rajarathna, RG Senanayake and JR Jayawardeme in 1965-68?

  • 3
    2

    Tisaranee, I read this two days ago. Yes, the anti-Rajapaksa protesters must occupy the moral high ground by not retaliating with violence.

    The day after our village trip to Matara for May Day there was a a slight altercation between the local JVP guy and an SLPP hothead. I succeeded in putting an end to that by telling the JVP guy that we had to focus our ire on the Rajapaksas and not their supporters, who already feel humiliated. At village level that is possible and necessary.
    .
    However, the Mynah-Go violence was different. It would have been wonderful if all had followed Tisaranee’s prescription, but it was too much to expect. With the Rajapaksas acting as they did, a backlash was unpreventable, and all indications are that it was not the protesters themselves who responded but the thugs often maintained by the major political parties. So, whilst we must keep this sort of thing under control, let us not feel so sorry for the SLPP guys who suffered. A few may have been innocent, but if they chose to stay with a group that consisted overwhelmingly of crooked rogues, then it was inevitable that they would suffer.

  • 2
    2

    Continuing
    .
    For the time being it may be good that the experienced Ranil is in charge, but I feel little gratitude for a man so totally absorbed with setting personal records. Had he practised democracy within his own party, we wouldn’t be in this mess. We must not be masochists ourselves. Given the circumstances, I will attempt again to douse fires, conscious as I am of decencies.
    .
    Life gets more difficult; we must agitate for early election. Our people are so fickle. The next unscrupulous lot to emerge may succeed in identifying a bogey that will unite them behind the next evil force.
    .
    Education has become Vocational Training with large doses of superstition. The young no longer think. A world-wide phenomenon. I know that we must correct all that, but it will be a long time coming. With the future so bleak we must forget all the frills that there were to life.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela

  • 2
    2

    “The impending global food crisis is real.”

    One can them presume, the fertilizer ban didn’t make a difference. There would have been a food shortage regardless of the ban. The fertilizer ban simply accelerated S Lanka into the future. If the global food crisis plays out, hundreds of thousands in the developing world will experience acute starvation. The good news is that Sri Lanka is a tropical country. Food falls out of the sky. Planting is fairly easy. Starvation is unlikely.

    • 2
      2

      What a load of BS from an intellect and agricultural farming expert!!??
      God Bless Sri Lanka?!

  • 0
    1

    In the thirties we used firewood, then came kerosine cookers, then GAS!!!!
    How about sunlight ?
    THE FAMILY has sent mostly all Chinese and other moneys abroad – Rwanda ????
    No one approved the massive expenditures by the Family – Ten Percent too got his cut.
    Now the cupboard is bare.
    Parliament gave pensions to all its members and relatives who too got parliament approved jobs and pensions.
    Helping Hambantota man got free pardon from sympathetic judge, and got an idea. Idiotic projects in southern province with cuts to the Family. Also a mausoleum for the patriarch.
    But still the greed for easy money persists. How may will die of starvation?
    The politicians are well fed – no thin politicos.
    The world is laughing at us.

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