4 December, 2020

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The Sinhalese People Who Are Ashamed To Speak In Sri Lanka

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Lasantha Pethiyagoda

One can see a particular trend in language usage in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala majority race is divided into several classes. At the topmost echelons, distinguishing themselves from the “new rich” business community of humble beginnings, are the English-speaking variety. These nominal Sinhalese are ashamed of their mother tongue. They pride themselves on being highly urbanized and highly Westernized, mostly residing in Colombo and the suburbs.

To this community, Sinhala, their native language is something they would rather discard altogether if possible considering it very lowly to be knowledgeable of it, or be culturally familiar with idioms, mannerisms, music, drama or folklore. A language only their maids and drivers would know and speak, but not them. These people, born and raised in Sri Lankan homes, having attended school in Sri Lanka, and having had their education in Sinhala, seem ashamed of Sinhala.

At meetings and parties, they love to boast that they do not understand Sinhala or that they find it very difficult to talk in “Sinhalese”, behaving somewhat like expatriates in a foreign country. Some of them go to the extent of having an accent when they do speak Sinhala, or deliberately speak haltingly and pretend to be searching for words of expression, interspersed with accentuated “ah”s and “um”s. Most of these Sinhalese are the descendants of Sinhalese parents, grand- parents and great grand-parents who had not the slightest exposure to another language.

The public, whatever their background, attempt to make sense of the world by constructing social categories that invariably involves the hierarchy. Sri Lankan leaders, together with the media have influenced the affluent public to forget their values in freely adopting values that result in profits for their companies and enterprises. Shirking of Sinhala is one such.

Sinhala had largely been the medium of instruction in all schools in Sri Lanka including in much of Colombo and the suburbs, before the advent of “International Schools” mushrooming in Sri Lanka just about a decade or more ago. Some parents of children attending these “international” schools are visibly proud to declare their children’s ignorance of their mother tongue!

Much before that, “well to do Sri Lankans” had the privilege of studying in the English medium before the “Sinhala Only” policy was introduced in Sri Lanka. This saw the abandonment of the English medium altogether, with the exception of private schools. Therefore, most of the men and women who attended private schools in Sri Lanka, now in their retirement had their entire education in English.

These so-called “Sinhalese” people have lost their identity so much, that when they introduce themselves to other Sri Lankan Sinhala people, they specify how their particular surnames are spelt….you guessed it, in English! They proudly declare that their name is spelt W, I, K, in “Wikremanayake” and not W, I,C,K, or that their name is spelt G,O,O,N in “Gooneratne” and not G,U,N, or that their name is spelt W,I,R, in “Wirasinghe” and not W, E,E,R. The way a particular political leader in the nineteen eighties pronounced his Sinhala name in Anglicised tones comes to mind. Here, the Sinhala “wardhana” is pronounced “wardner”.

These pathetic souls who have lived in Sri Lanka with names roughly meaning victorious lion or leader or developing virtuousness have totally abandoned who they are, latching onto how a foreigner has prescribed they spell their name and slavishly follow their masters’ decrees that were only relevant centuries ago, probably with considerations of convenience in mind rather than hierarchy. In spelling their Sinhala names in English, they also want to distinguish their superiority from those who would spell their names otherwise. It is the height of ridiculousness, don’t you think? 

Moving to the audio-visual media, Sinhala television dialogue is interspersed with expressions such as “Wow!” to exclaim surprise, while “shit” is unashamedly expressed to show disappointment, presenters probably unaware of its meaning. Audio-visual media anchors and presenters, young actors and actresses, most never ever having left Sri Lanka’s shores, speak Sinhala with an “English-sounding” accent. They too seem to be searching for words to express themselves in Sinhala, while not engaging too long in English except for a smattering of phrases quickly reverting to the familiar.

It has also become trendy to adopt “Western” style breakfasts. Television advertisements show young Sinhala men and women (who would definitely look more at home in sarong or frock) dressed in ties and suits, pouring “breakfast cereal” into their children’s bowls at breakfast. The English-speaking “elite” seem to have abandoned “kola kaenda”, “mung-aeta”, “kadala”, “pittu”, “arpper” and “indi-arpper” for Coco-pops, corn-flakes and wheat biscuits, most of which are imported, not as nutritious and full of sugar. Here again, it is the ‘foreign-ness” that attracts, not their intrinsic qualities, which neatly fits into these people’s efforts to distance themselves with anything Sinhala.

Any challenger to the status quo, in desperation, would attempt to ram home the inherent disconnect between the facts of evidence and the attractively woven myths that promote an alien lifestyle. However, as we see today, it is not sufficiently powerful because the storytellers find it easy to ignore the disconnect, seeming perfectly comfortable in a realm of pure fiction – which only make the concocted fantasies all the more convincing, to the millions of eager citizens who yearn for change to success.

One only needs travel down popular highways in suburban Colombo and main roads within the city to witness banners and billboards advertising “Western-sounding” institutes of “higher” education “affiliated” to American or British “universities”. They promise foreign degrees and diplomas, “internationally” recognized, whereas the implication is that indigenous institutes are too lowly and unfashionable. Their brochures and advertising supplements in local newspapers depict white Caucasian people celebrating their academic achievements. “Locals” are not to be seen! I am convinced that if they had instead depicted young Sri Lankans, or the institutions  had Sinhala names, no one would even bother looking!

To confound things even more, false values even form part of official public policy. One, is that representative democracy and a free enterprise economy are necessary for anyone anywhere to live a decent civilised life; and the all-powerful leaders take it upon themselves to ensure that everyone everywhere can enjoy their God-given right to live in a liberal, democratic and capitalist society.

Given these developments, with seemingly insurmountable problems afflicting “local” higher education, the Sinhala people are rapidly developing further class differences to differentiate the “other”. With economic problems that will not be resolved for many long generations, the recipe is being formulated for massive social upheaval.  

The state can be manipulated to use its powers only by a people aware of what they receive and how best it may be changed. People have a responsibility to nurture this resplendent isle to its former glory by rediscovering their humanity, fellowship with the enduring heritage of its blessed soil and compassionate endeavour.

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Latest comments

  • 15
    4

    In a nut shell, we are going back to the “colonial era” once again with “Lamborghini Racing Cars” ARN’T WE ?

  • 11
    28

    Aiyoo dear Lasantha, you even don’t know how to spell “Aappa and Indiaappa” ! This is the first time I have seen the spelling “Arpper”!!!

    • 19
      5

      ‘Appa’ is a Sinhala word just incase you didn’t know. Hence there is no right way or wrong way to spell it in English.

      • 5
        5

        The word “Appa” comes from South Indian word appam. We Sri Lankans knocked off the letter “m”
        So yes, there is a correct way of writing it.

  • 6
    2

    I have noticed it among the youth today- that they dont want to exchange with their family ones but only with their friends today than had been to my times (3 decades ago). They are used to hang on with their generations being addicted to phones and internet and other high tec gadjets. Parents are not knowledgble enough to see what their growing up children (teeny or even ones in 20-30 age groups) are busy with – for them it is proudy thing to see their ones just surf on the laptops or desktops. How many of them are making use of it for their education is secondary to them. That is the basis. Parents´ignorance or inability see things in a proper manner have caused many of the youth to fall deeper in illegal businesses. Latter is beocming a social problem in the countries like ours. Every parents would want to buy their lovely ones PC, thinking that they should grow up with computer skills. But the disstaster that Internet switing them to is beyond parents´knowledge. Awaarenss programs should be given on these topics – sociologists andpsychologists (professionals) should work together to protect sex and the other abusive actitives becoming familiar with the young ones through net use today.

  • 23
    2

    Interesting article. Well, I’m half Sri-Lankan and half American, and so can say with experience that Sri-Lanka is coming down with a bit of the snobbery, mostly through the rise of materialism. Which is totally normal in a developing country where the income gap is so incredibly huge between the incredibly wealthy and the destitute. Living in Thailand now, you can’t imagine how much worse it is here.

    Basically, I can’t speak Singhalese anymore but not for the reasons you described. I was born and raised in Colombo until I was 9 years old, and Singhalese was my first language. I went to an international school, where most of my expat classmates could speak at least some Singhalese and in many cases still call Sri-Lanka their home-town. My parents are the typical ‘expats’ as you mentioned, so we moved around a lot and fitting in was the most important thing, so English became the main language for me.

    In this case, I guess I fit into your category of those that can’t speak Singhalese, but it has nothing to do with being ashamed. I’m ashamed I can’t speak it. Whenever I go back to visit Sri-Lanka, I’m treated very differently for not being able to speak Singhalese with the locals and so people think I’m stuck up for that…

    To get to the point…Think about the ostracism I face.

    • 6
      7

      Awww…. Oh no! ): Now I’m scared to go on my first Sri Lankan vacation, considering I’ve spent my whole life in the US. Here comes the shunning. )’:

      • 1
        1

        He’s not talking about the likes of people like you! You’re exempt having not lived there! But I guess if you look Sri Lankan & can’t speak the language you might be susceptible! All the best & enjoy your holiday!

  • 15
    1

    I am Sinhalese and proud to be one (even though I do not live in Sri Lanka). I can understand what you are trying to say through your argument – about English being the language of the elite and all those who cannot speak it being thrown into a different bracket even though Sinhala is still considered the main language of the country. I think that this is the result of a colonization – people losing their individuality and culture. It is hard to just revert back to the days of the ancient kings and the Sinhalese people are still struggling with their cultural identity. However, it must also be noted that there is a difference between being ‘proud of your culture’ and being ‘bigoted’. The truth is that we as South Asians are probaably the most intolerant of other people. Being a mixed culture is not a bad thing – I live in New York and come across people of varying cultures and the greatest thing is that we can all live in harmony, be tolerant, and respect each other. This is something that Sri Lanka lacks as you can see on this very forum – people arguing about being Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim instead of just accepting each other as being ‘Sri Lankan’. I think that if Sri Lanka is to progress as a nation, this is what is important – a common identity for everyone rather than focusing on being Sinhalese or Tamil – but uniting to form a culture that is Sri Lankan (and this includes the Burghers). We might point fingers at the West for all that is wrong with us, but the West is far more tolerant of ‘other’ people than what we have displayed. So what I am really trying to say is, how about we all focus on how we can get along with one another and develop Sri Lanka as a united country that is multi-cutlural rather than focus on our individualties?

    • 5
      4

      Great that some of our people are seen to be called them Srilankens proudly. But the burning problem that we are facing today is the country is becoming a totalitarian regime governed by a family and their siblings that would not RESPECT the rule of law.

      Your point is clear to peace loving educated masses in the country. But so long parties and groups built by the names of their representing religions and races – like SINHALA BODU PERAMUNA or BUDDHIST OR MUSLIM POÖLITICAL PARTIES, we cant expect that we can achieve any progress in the line of being united srilanka.

    • 6
      6

      You have raised valid points Anonymous. You say N/Y is an example for tolerance in terms of respect different cultures. Yes but their main culture is Christian. From the Presi of USA taking oaths by put his palm on the bible, everything is Christian which is fine and Im not against that. Basically their dominant culture is Christian. Whereas in Sri Lanka, the other faiths do not accept and respect to the main culture here in SL which is Sinhalese Buddhist. Thats the problem for most of the illnesses we face here in Sri Lanka.

      • 7
        5

        max

        “Whereas in Sri Lanka, the other faiths do not accept and respect to the main culture here in SL which is Sinhalese Buddhist.”

        Could you tell us more about your Sinhla/Buddhist culture. My Elders tell me there was no such culture existed about 100 years ago. When was this Sinhala/Buddhist culture manufactured? They say there were people who spoke Sinhala happened to be Buddhists and there were Buddhists who happened to speak Sinhala. They also knew there were people who spoke Tamils happened to be Buddhists and there were Buddhists who happened to speak Tamil.

        What aspect of Sinhala/Buddhism which is unique that separate them from rest of the world?

  • 11
    2

    To add to that, to me being Sri Lankan is more important than being Sinhalese. So yes, I am proud to be Sri Lankan.

  • 1
    1

    I find it somewhat intriguing why a post of comments – the last of which on Dec 10 – has been resurrected here with two further new comments. I was British till 1948 and then Ceylonese. From 1972 I was a reluctant Sri Lankan but 7/83 seems to have changed even that equation. Much has to be done, constitutionalised and practised in the streets to produce that “We are all Sri Lankan” notion. Sadly for us
    today, that feeling of being unwanted is now the lot of another minority community under cruel mental siege. Creating a wholesome
    “We are Sri Lankan” reality should not be the mere wish of the more cultured elitist. It becomes meaningful when the ordinary majority man in the street, in the bus, in the train and in the market genuinely
    respects that unifying sentiment.

    I am fully in agreement with Anonymous “the West is far more tolerant of the “other” than what we have displayed. One reason may be in North America most people, with the exception of the First Nations, are from outside. But this is no reason why we should not rise above prejudice and make efforts to move towards peace and reconciliation.

    Senguttuvan

  • 13
    0

    As a student learning in an international school I do understand the importance of English as a global mode of communication. Yet I find it vital to state that I am firmly against the mentioning of ‘Sinhala’ as a dying language.
    I am a Sri Lankan and i see Sinhala as a beautiful language that can be used to express deep emotions and describe, in a very touching way. It is very much alive and breathing just like you and me.
    If it is a dying language then why do international educational organizations offer it as a subject in their examination?
    As a student who is offering it for my exam i have personally grown a deep bond for this exquisite language and hope to continue learning it even once my exam is over. It is the mother tongue that keeps us bonded to the mother land therefore it is a necessity to at least learn the basics of it however ‘local and uncool’ it may be.
    Still I would also like to (very plainly)point out that we students do not consider our mother tongue as a burden to our reputation as some have mentioned earlier, but as a reason to be proud of. We know very well that however much we try to become ‘kalu suddas’ that deep inside we will still love the ‘kiribath and katta sambol’ that is fed to us by our mothers.

  • 8
    12

    Agreed. We are pathetic. So what are you going to do about it? Massacre us as well ? Other people’s issues making you so insecure ? Are you ashamed that you are unable to reach up the standards of wealth and accomplishment of the people you so badly despise? Be humble as the Buddha taught, or you may most likely be reborn as a Tamil tiger.

  • 17
    19

    I just want to understand what the reasoning was behind communicating your denouncement of Western culture in a Western language? I would imagine someone who had such a fondness for a particular language would choose to convey his opinion in that very language and certainly not in the language that he has just labeled other people as being more or less racial traitors for speaking in.

    Does this make you a traitor? A lover of The White man and his culture? It’s because from miracle you got the chance to be educated in English, a language spoken in roughly every part of the world, and because of that you will have an advantage in the job sector overseas over someone not so lucky for the rest of your life.

    Where is Sinhala spoken? That’s right only one single place and not even in all of that place whether you want believe it or not us Sinhalese are not alone on this island and it is arrogant and dangerous to believe that our language is the all and be all of this world because if it was more people outside of Sri Lanka would speak it, and that’s just a fact. There’s no point getting on a high horse that is not even an inch off the ground.

    The truth is Sri Lanka has become a lonely isolated place with no prospects of empowerment or reform and for the most part it is because of narrow minded,stubborn people like you who are so insecure about their own culture you actually find it a threat to your nation that people would enjoy a breakfast that is lol “Western” as if no one but White folk have ever eat coco puffs.Why must we shut ourselves off to things that are not of our culture?

    • 5
      6

      Well said Miss. Tharika. Couldn’t have put it better myself. There’s no shame in valuing our culture. But Sri Lanka will be isolated with this “frog in the well” mindset.

      We either have to be powerful enough to make the change, like Japan using Japanese language for everything or to adapt with the world to survive. Since the former is not true as we don’t have strong industries which can have an influence.

    • 1
      2

      Koheda yanne malle pol (hope you might understand)

  • 16
    4

    i completely agree with this article.but its a pity that some are searching for mere spelling mistakes in this article. (like arppa). If we r humble enough we shud agree with this. Nowadays we cannot express this sort of ideas. Coz godaya kyala ahaganda wenawa. I would like to mention something else too .the writter has never denounced english or western culture.he has clarified that being shinhala n going for other cultures is freaky.knowing english well is essential. Most of the idiots have misunderstood the writter.

  • 8
    1

    I just wanted to say that I am surprised- I didn’t know that such people as those described in this article existed!
    I have lived in Colombo for most of my life and went to an international school, and speak English far better than I speak Sinhalese. However I find this extremely embarrassing and wish that I could speak Sinhala more confidently. I feel extremely privileged to have had an education and be good at English, but the fact that I am poor at Sinhala is not because I learned in English but because we don’t speak Sinhala at home.
    Even though I am poor at the language, we eat kiribath, mung ata and kadala regularly and I will definitely always prefer it to cereal!
    I may not fit in, I am still proud to be Sri Lankan

  • 3
    5

    I will be grateful to the write if he could enlighten the readers by elaborating what he meant as “former glory”. I belive we in Sri Lanka are now living in great times. The learned writer has also completely disregarded the fact that English is very much a part of of culture and heritage. Whether he likes it or not English is here to stay and and next few decades we will see more and more people being proficient in English language. The writer also makes a reference to new rich segment in the society. I would like to. Ask him what’s wrong being rich? And what’s wrong if they wish to speak English at home instead of Sinhala? I would like to remind him that English is a national language recognised by the Constitution. He also ridicules people for wearing western atire, that again is a matter of person’s choice, and he himself it appears prefer western atire. He seems to belive that English should be spoken only by “old money” class. Not by the people who became rich enough to send their children to International and Private school. I don’t know about TV and radio, because I don’t not consume content on such media. But my experience of living in this country for 55 year as is that, if at all only very small percentage of population is ashamed of speaking Sinhala.it may nit be his desire, but I am sure every parent in this country and in many developing countries, want their children to acquire English language skills.

  • 11
    8

    What was the point of this article? This writer has made some generalisations based on a handful of people who he has met that fit the stereotype he is trying to perpetuate through the article. If the entire upper-echelon is so ashamed of speaking in Sinhala, then why do many of them continue to send their children to the top local schools S. Thomas, Ladies, Bishops, Royal, etc. to be educated in Sinhala (or Tamil as the case may be) at least up to O Level? Or to bring it to the public level, why do Ministers (from the above background) like Harsha De Silva etc., who although they may have been educated in Sinhala up to a point, were not fluent at speaking it until they got themselves private tuition etc. in their old age (consider Harsha’s early speeches in Sinhala with the ones today) because they understood that there is some value (at least at this point in time) in being able to converse in the main language? Where does Pethi ascribe any importance to that?

    Or is this Pethiyagoda chap feeling morally superior because he claims to be able to eat “arppa” with kings while conversing with the common man? Or worse still, is he upset that someone snubbed him at the golf club? Oh dear, oh dear!

    I am seriously concerned about the deviance in CT’s standard of journalism/publishing as of late! Being able to converse in Sinhala or Tamil at the cocktail party is not really going to take you anywhere in this age of globalization – this false nationalism is only going to serve to increase differences among the communities and also ensure that our youth will NOT survive the turn of globalization. The Indians, and to some extent the Chinese, have realised this and that is why they have chosen to educate at least their elite in English and send them to UK/USA for a few years to be exposed to this. Look at where they are and where we are?

    Time to start a new telegraph for this kind of rubbish.

  • 7
    5

    Will people like Mr. Pethiyagoda teach their children only Sinhala and no other language? Probably not. Mr. P and his ilk belong to the Sri Lankan Goday class. Their main aim is focus on the “glorious past”. However, if they get a chance their children will study English and runaway from Sri Lanka and then wave their Sinhala flag from whatever western country

  • 2
    1

    Given the stuff that the Sinhalese and Tamils have been doing ever since the collapse of the British Empire – no civilized human being will want to have anything to do with these savages!

  • 5
    0

    For me this is part of identity crisis. More people become part of Queens regime after getting rich and able to speak posh in a parallel world. People start to forget how their mother called in a sweet language in childhood. For me Sinhala has all exotic ingredients to express deeper sense of your soul.English is way beyond the natural ability to express your feelings. English is wrapper outside core of srilankans. Make secondary education in English, let village talent to burst into world. Let people to realize being tamil or sinhalese will not hinder your opportunity.Its a strong point …

  • 5
    0

    Hilarious. People getting upset over something published in the Colombo Telegraph.

  • 1
    0

    Meanwhile Srilankans live in other countries send kids to learn Sinhala & Daham paasal and travel far just to buy a jar of dry sprats :)

  • 4
    1

    Mr. Lasantha Pethiyagoda, I’m a Sri Lankan who was born and raised in Colombo, and graduated from not one, but two international schools (till O/L in one school and A/L in another). Sinhala is my mother tongue and I speak it very proudly. I’m currently studying abroad but I always speak highly of my language to foreigners I meet here. Foreign languages lack the beauty and descriptive qualities of our mother tongue. Sadly though, your article is accurate. Except for one point: my last name is spelled ‘Goonaratne’ and I’m very adamant about it. This is not because I have lost my identity, but because I want to retain it. This is how my family has spelled our name since as far as I can find and this gives me an identity. My father and grandfather have both spelled their names with these exact spellings and I very much want to keep it that way because I belong to their blood line. Specifying how your name is spelled doesn’t mean you’re a “fake Sinhalese”. I’m as proud as one can be to be Sri Lankan and wouldn’t have chosen any other country to be born in, had I been given the choice.

  • 2
    6

    What an absolute load of rubbish! Seriously, CT –

  • 2
    4

    What an absolute load of rubbish. Seriously CT, this sounds like a rant from Kolu’s Oh Colombo column – but at least that is entertaining.

  • 3
    0

    There is nothing wrong with the Snghalese language. There is also nothing wrong with speaking, reading and writing it. BUT if that is the ONLY language you know… I am afraid you are in deep shit. You will be able to look at porn on the internet, but you will not be able to understand what is said on Wikipedia. And in time to come it will only get worse, and the poor souls who refused; or did not have the opportunity to learn English; will become more and more like frogs in a well. “Singhala only” policy was the ultimate injustice done to the Singhala people.

    • 2
      0

      Stay on putting the blame on ” sinhala only” policy can bring us nowhere.
      What have the others done since the Banadaranyakes is assasinated. Even today, not much significant sums are allocated for Education/higher education in the country while the bugger in power deliberately abused state funds for the luxious day today activities of his offsprings. Today, being unable to respond tothe questions being arisen ont he issues, he is searchign for thoughts and minds. Alone to say that the party must pay for the bills collected for ITN – interprets everything. Bugger MR destroyed the nation and country as Congo president did it.

  • 2
    4

    Hmm… Very Interesting, Is M. Pethiyagoda arguing against all knowledge of a language that has become standard across the world ?

    Is he arguing for a return to the “Kaduwa” era of the 70’s ?

    Why is he writing in an English publication ? And apparently from Australia ???

    Should he not be in Sri Lanka, writing in Sinhala publications that are written on “pus-kola” because paper and print is a horrid Western invention

    Should we pull the wool over our own eyes and say that Peradeniya University, as good as it is, is better than IIT, MIT or Oxford ? What proof exists ?

    So let us not learn English or indeed any other language with the intention of expanding our knowledge and reach. Let us just learn Sinhala and say “We know Sinhala and only Sinhala, very well..”

    What a moron !

  • 2
    0

    I totally agree with Lasantha.Some of the sinhalese in Sri Lanka are suffering from inferiority complex.They feel that speaking from their mother tongue is a disgrace to them.So they always try to speak in english to show their haughtiness and status.I think that they try to expose their ignorance.English is a very important language for us.It is the only language we use to communicate and transact with the world.We should be able to use it when and where it is required.If they try to speak english to show their status by letting down their,own language it’s a very bad practice.The wellknown Sinhalese scientist in NASA professor Gunapala never speaks an english word when he comes to Sri Lanka because he loves his mother tongue and the country.Another good example is our great cricketer,Kumar Sangakkara,how beautifully he speaks both sinhala and english languages.

  • 3
    0

    I totally agree with Lasantha.Some of the sinhalese in Sri Lanka are suffering from inferiority complex.They feel that speaking from their mother tongue is a disgrace to them.So they always try to speak in english to show their haughtiness and status.I think that they try to expose their ignorance.English is a very important language for us.It is the only language we use to communicate and transact with the world.We should be able to use it when and where it is required.If they try to speak english to show their status by letting down their,own language it’s a very bad practice.The wellknown Sinhalese scientist in NASA professor Gunapala never speaks an english word when he comes to Sri Lanka because he loves his mother tongue and the country.Another good example is our great cricketer,Kumar Sangakkara,how beautifully he speaks both sinhala and english languages. When I was in Germany for a training,i found that germans were reluctant to speak in english.They think that speaking in english is a disgrace to their to their own language.

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