25 September, 2020

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Unitary To Quasi-Federal Structure

By G.L. Peiris

“What we are now contemplating is the changing of that unitary structure to admit of a degree of power sharing, which is generally associated with quasi-federal structures. Now the question that is asked is: we are all familiar with the phenomenon of independent entities coming together within the framework of a federal state, but is it possible, is it feasible, to envisage a country which has always been a unitary state now adopting, as a result of a political process, quasi-federal structures and mechanisms? That has been a question, which has been put to us, very pointedly,in the course of the constitutional initiative taking place at the present time in my country.

Peiris

Peiris

I need to tell you that one of the problems we face here is an emotional problem. Not people being cerebral, reflective thinking consciously about these matters, but an intuitive and emotional response to these very mixed and convoluted issues. The problem there is this: Many people feel, in our part of the world, that federalism is the precursor to the physical dismemberment, or the disintegration of the nation state. If you proceed in that direction the end result would be the break-up of a nation state.

Now many people are suspicious of federalism in our country. They are suspicious because they feel that this is the thin end of the wedge. Once you begin travelling in that direction, how do you stop short of the physical disintegration of the state?

Now, it is a question of moulding public opinion and convincing people that far from quasi-federal structures bringing about the break-up of a country, have enabled countries, characterised by a large degree of diversity, to remain as single countries. Look at Canada. Closer to my own country, look at India, just across the Palk Straits. It is impossible to conceive a republic of India being one country if all power had been concentrated in the capital, New Delhi. So it is the emergence and the consolidation of structures which have enabled people coming from a diversity of cultural backgrounds to feel at home in their respective nations. It is these mechanisms that have enabled the survival of these entities as unified countries.”

Remarks Prof. G.L. Peiris at the International Conference on Federalism, Mount – Tremblant, Canada, 7 October 1999:

We are happy to be here participating in your proceedings.

Sri Lanka is not a federal state but, with many countries of the emerging world we are confronting a very complex problem. And I would summarise that problem in this way: How do you reconcile ethnic and cultural diversity with the concept of mature and cohesive nationhood? Certainly in South Asia this is a perennial problem. In many of our countries there are people who speak different languages, profess different religions, come from different cultural backgrounds. How do you construct political and economic institutions, which enable this range of diversity to be readily compatible with the perception of belonging to a single country, without any element of exclusion from decision­making processes?

I think that is a central challenge facing many of the countries of the developing world. As the chairman pointed out, in Sri Lanka, we are experimenting with certain ideas which will enable us to devolve substantial power to different regions in the country. The whole thrust of this is empowerment of people; making it possible for them to play a more active and vigorous role in the making of decisions which touch their daily lives.

How do you do this within the framework of a single state? In Sri Lanka, as we proceed with this initiative we find ourselves facing a particular problem. We are told that if you look at the history of federalism in the world the typical model of federalism is that of regions coming together, regions that were earlier independent. They come together for certain limited purposes. That has been the traditional pattern. Now, Sri Lanka, by contrast, has always been a unitary state. Federalism has not at any time been part of the political experience of my country.

Unitary State vs. Federalism

What we are now contemplating is the changing of that unitary structure to admit of a degree of power sharing, which is generally associated with quasi-federal structures. Now the question that is asked is: we are all familiar with the phenomenon of independent entities coming together within the framework of a federal state, but is it possible, is it feasible, to envisage a country which has always been a unitary state now adopting, as a result of a political process, quasi-federal structures and mechanisms? That has been a question, which has been put to us, very pointedly,in the course of the constitutional initiative taking place at the present time in my country.

I need to tell you that one of the problems we face here is an emotional problem. Not people being cerebral, reflective thinking consciously about these matters, but an intuitive and emotional response to these very mixed and convoluted issues. The problem there is this: Many people feel, in our part of the world, that federalism is the precursor to the physical dismemberment, or the disintegration of the nation state. If you proceed in that direction the end result would be the break-up of a nation state.

Now many people are suspicious of federalism in our country. They are suspicious because they feel that this is the thin end of the wedge. Once you begin travelling in that direction, how do you stop short of the physical disintegration of the state?

Now, it is a question of moulding public opinion and convincing people that far from quasi-federal structures bringing about the break-up of a country, have enabled countries, characterised by a large degree of diversity, to remain as single countries. Look at Canada. Closer to my own country, look at India, just across the Palk Straits. It is impossible to conceive a republic of India being one country if all power had been concentrated in the capital, NewDelhi. So it is the emergence and the consolidation of structures which have enabled people coming from a diversity of cultural backgrounds to feel at home in their respective nations. It is these mechanisms that have enabled the survival of these entities as unified countries.

That may be self-evident when you put the proposition in that way, but one has to overcome a high degree of emotion and convince people of the reality of that position. In doing so I think we have to jettison labels, nomenclature is not themost important thing. There are many countries in the world which do not fall neatly into this category of unitary or federal. There are hybrid structures. So I do not think that we should be slaves to stereotypes or to labels.

In any federal or quasi-federal structure, you have a basic tension. You’re trying to reconcile two competing objectives. One is that the centre must be strong. There must be effective government. At the same time, it must be entirely consistent with the recognition of the cultural and the ethnic diversity that is part and parcel of the everyday experience of that country. So those are the two competing considerations for which provision has to be made in the structures that are established.

Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Models

The complex question that countries like Sri Lanka have to face in that regard is about the di vision of powers between the centre and the periphery. There are two competing models: symmetrical or asymmetrical. Of course, you have the centre, and then you have the provinces or the regions. Do you devolve powers to the regions on a uniform basis? Will every region be the recipient, the repository of the same degree of power? Or would you recognize nuances and gradations? Would you recognize quantitative and qualitative differences with regard to the distribution of powers among the different units that constitute the federation.

One argument is that you have to recognize the practicalities of the situation. In my own country, most of the problems are in the northern and the eastern regions where the majority of the people speak the Tamil language. Those are regions dominated by a minority. There is a similar situation in Canada, in Spain and in other countries.

Do you then solve the problem in this way: a duopoly approach that greater powers need to be devolved to those regions where the most acute problems arise in every day experience?
In Sri Lanka, we have found that one of the reasons why that approach is difficult is a degree of emotional resistance. If the majority feel that some kind of completely special and disparate treatment is meted out to a particular region, which is inhabited by a group of people who belong to the racial minority, then psychologically there’s a high degree of resistance to the adoption of those models and structures.

But whichever solution you adopt, symmetrical or asymmetrical, it is important to insist, in keeping with the contemporary Sri Lankan experience, that there must be power – sharing also at the centre. The situation is complicated in a country like my own where the minorities do not live exclusively in a particular part of the country. They do live in the northern and the eastern provinces, but then there are large numbers of Tamil-speaking people who live in the capital city and its environs. So a viable structure cannot consist simply of the devolution of power to regions.

You have to look at the problem of power sharing at the centre and develop appropriate mechanisms to accomplish that objective.

In so doing you must achieve clarity. I think clarity is very important indeed. In Sri Lanka, we have adoptedthis experience. We have established a clear-cut distinction between the powers retained by the centre in the form of a reserve list, and the powers devolved to the periphery, namely the devolved list. We have done away with the concept of a concurrent list consisting of shared competencies, because that leads to ambiguity, endlessdebate which cannot be resolved in any satisfactory manner. So we do not have a no man’s land. There’s a clear-cut distinction between powers that belong to the centre and the powers devolved to the periphery.

Then another requirement of such a structure is that of effectiveness. You must ensure that the centre has the powers which it needs with regard to defence, for example, foreign policy, the national budget and other powers are devolved to the periphery.

It is also important to insist that the provinces must have the resources, the wherewithal that they need to discharge their functions. Otherwise, the structures may be near perfect in theory, but they will not work on the ground if the units, if the regions do not possess sufficient resources to discharge their functions adequately. For similar reasons, the provinces must also be adequately equipped in terms of personnel.

Minorities Vs Minorities

Then there’s this one other element that I need to refer to. These problems in our part of the world cannot be analyzed solely in terms of majority versus minority. What imparts a particularly complex dimension is the minority versus minority aspect. In Sri Lanka there are two minorities: there are the Tamils; there are the Muslims. If in the northern and the eastern regions you devolve very substantial powers to the Tamil-speaking minority then the Muslims ask that their own fundamental rights be suitably entrenched by constitutional arrangements to prevent the Muslims from being overwhelmed by the Tamil community. That is a dimension that we need to bear in mind. The structures that we evolve must also contain suitable mechanisms for theresolution of problems which may arise between the centre and the regions on the one hand, and among the regions on the other hand. In Sri Lanka we have chosen the method of a chief ministers’ conference as one of the mechanisms for resolving disputes as and when they arise, before they become very aggravated or exacerbated.

The final point I would like to make is this: these structures may be desirable, but they will be successful only in an environment that is pervaded by respect for pluralism. So one is to take into account the ethos of society as a whole. There must be a high degree of public awareness of the value systems sought to be embodied in the constitutional arrangements. You need a vigorous press. You need trade unions. Political parties. You need democracy within political parties. You need certain regulatory mechanisms with regard to the finances of political parties. There must be access to justice. The ombudsman or the equivalent of the ombudsman, must have a significant role to play.

Some degree of egalitarianism is necessary to make a success of some of these principles; so one has to have a holistic conception of human development and the political and economic structures that come into being must reflect that commitment to pluralism, secularism, and the functioning representative of democracy.

Within the short period allocated to me I have tried to give you an insight into the complexity of the problems in my country and some of the approaches we are currently adopting to achieve a resolution of these problems. We do not believe that war is the answer. Sri Lanka is not the only country that has faced problems of this kind and the lesson that we can learn from the progress of human civilization isthat matters like this have to do with the anxieties, the apprehensions, the hopes and the aspirations of human beings. And these problems can be resolved only at the political level by means of the kinds of proposals directed towards the empowerment of people and the creation of autonomous units. That, I think, is the way to go and I think that is basically the lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan experience. We would like to look at what has happened in other countries; not to reinvent the wheel, but to adapt the solutions that have been adopted elsewhere to suit the combination of circumstances that exists in my own country.

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Latest comments

  • 23
    0

    Prof G L piers is a typical example of Sri Lankan politicians who can twist their tongues according to the need, if in government claim and preach one thing at any cost but in opposition exactly the opposite of what they preached before. He is more power hungry and unprincipled in order to get a ministerial post and perks associated with it.

    The prof asks now ” is it possible, is it feasible, to envisage a country which has always been a unitary state now adopting, as a result of a political process, quasi-federal structures and mechanisms? ”

    But he had already given the answer to his own question.

    To refresh his memory, there are many examples in the world where Federalism prevented separation. Switzerland, Canada (more than Federalism), India (less than federalism) and most European countries and many more …

    • 9
      0

      Saro

      Good comment. That is why he was known as “Geneva Loss Pe is” !

      • 10
        0

        Just prior to Portuguese conquest, Srilanka had three different sovereign states. Before the establishment of Anuradhapura kingdom by force, there were several tribal areas with their own heads. Before British united the country in 1815, Srilanka was in most of the times was a divided land. Even under Portuguese & Dutch rule, Jaffna kingdom was governed separately from rest of Srilanka. Even under British rule until 1833, it was so. Only in 1833, British without the consent of Tamils brought the entire Srilanka under a unitary state. Therefore the statement that Srilanka was always been a unitary state is a blatant lie. In 2002, when Peiris was chief negotiator for government with LTTE, he signed an accord in Oslo with Balasingham to explore a solution with right to internal self determination on the basis of federalism. Now he is talking exactly the opposite for the sake of political expediency.

    • 8
      1

      G.L. Peiris

      RE:Unitary To Quasi-Federal Structure

      First of all, this is the Land of Native Veddah Aethho occupied by the Paras, Para-Sinhala, Para-Tamils, Para-Muslims and other Paras, Foreigners, who came illegally to the Land, as far as the Native Veddah Aethho are concerned.

      The land was under separate kings and administrations, for a longer time in history. It was under one administration only after 1815, when the British took control, and after independence. After the Para-Sinhala “Buddhists” took control, it as all calamity, riots, war and murder, BECAUSE it was a UNITARY STATE under the Para-Sinhala “Buddhists”.

      United States comprises 50 States and is unitary. There are state rights, but the Unitary country still exists.

      Sri Lanka shoukd be a federal state with a Unitary country, with check and balances so that the Para-Sinhala, the Para-Tamils, the Para-Muslims and others Paras do not run berserk, as has been happening since independence.

      Since you have been a cronie of Mahinda Rajapaksa, you should know better.

      • 4
        0

        Amarasiri,

        “A unitary state is a state governed as a single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any administrative divisions (sub-national units) exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate. The majority of states in the world have a unitary system of government.”

        America is not a unitary state, it’s a united Federal State. You know “a federal state has a constitution or other supreme law of the land that outlines the powers granted to both the central and local governments.”

        “Sri Lanka shoukd be a federal state with a Unitary country, with check and balances so that the Para-Sinhala, the Para-Tamils, the Para-Muslims and others Paras do not run berserk, as has been happening since independence.”

        – Agreed.

    • 7
      0

      Looks like the cat is out of the bag. All this while, he wrote under MR’s name. This time he has written under his name. Frustration out of power, will lead him to do anything even fall at Ms’s feat.

      • 7
        0

        Ignore this old acrobat

    • 0
      0

      Sri Lanka has many corrupt, lazy, irresponsible politicians, but I think GL is the worst – such deep contempt for the very principles he has once himself defended and for his own education and intelligence and such shamelessness in doing the bidding of a once-ruling family whose evil and cruelty makes a mockery of the most basic human values. What must go on in the heart of GL, should he still have one?

  • 10
    0

    What has Professor Peiris done since October 1999??
    Has he got any new ideas?

  • 13
    0

    Sri Lanka is a relatively small island-state, with an appreciable minority (25%) who need to huddle together for safety. 1958, 1977 and 1983 remain fresh in our memories. Even those of the/a minority living in COLOMBO found out that it was not safe. AND Law and Order is virtually non-existent when it comes to hate crime. In fact there is irrefutable evidence that Ministers and other politicians actively foster it.

    Professor Peiris would do well to looking at solutions to these problems. rather than harp on about Federalism. In a small truly homogeneous island-state like ours there would be no need for any artificial divisions/regions; IF only we unite, treating each with respect and consideration.

    Most of our Sinhalese politicians, including Prof Peiris, would rather use the twin crutches of religion and language to divide us, so he and his cohorts can rule.

  • 21
    0

    ” Now, Sri Lanka, by contrast, has always been a unitary state. Federalism has not at any time been part of the political experience of my country.”

    Sri Lanka , in its pre -colonial history was a feudal state divided between feuding rulers. It was never a unitary state. At best and that too for very short periods, subservient rulers paid ransom (Kapang/Kappam) to the dominant one, while ruling their territories as they wished.

    How did G. L. Peiris, along with Neelan Thiruchelvam fashion the ‘Union of Regions’ Constitution ‘ during Chandrika Kumaratunge’s first tenure as president?

    What is his stand today? He was yet an academic then. In his new incarnation, has he turned a hypocrite, opportunist and Pharisee?

    Dr.Rajasingham Narrendran

    • 14
      1

      Prof peiris is a turn-coat of a politician: He jumped from the UNP to SLFP. He then lead the peace talks with the LTTE and later supported the war on the Tigers.

      He is untrustworthy in his views, with no principles, as he is habitual in upending his own views.

      Sri Lanka has not always been a unitary state: The concept itself is an import from the West. Doesn’t he know that before the advent of the Portuguese there were different states in the island?

      Peiris is a good example for the use of the term “alternative fact” now in vogue in the US.

    • 2
      5

      Rajasingham,

      Your comment “has he turned a hypocrite, opportunist and Pharisee” reminds me of the idiom “set a thief to catch a thief”!

      Takes a thief to know a thief! Trying hard to be on the “other side” now, huh?

    • 7
      0

      Dr Narendran

      You know GLP well.

      I hope you ALSO know ‘Boru Kakkuls’ dance in Colombo whisking their colourful handkerchiefs.

      What is the difference between the two?

      I will respect the Boru Kakkul than GLP becauseunlike Boru Kakkul GLP is a serious Health & Safety hazard.

  • 12
    1

    Although the author was the Professor of Law, Dean of the faculty of law and finally the Vice-Chancellor, he is the least qualified to talk about the subject because of the loss of credibility through his conduct. Yes in politics he has switched sides. He may say all sorts of things, perhaps unintelligible to the normal folk. Big descriptions and big talk but at the end there is nothing. He now has the brass guts to give us a talk on psychology.

    Just because Sri Lanka was unitary and almost all the power in Colombo does not mean a change cannot take place. Change has to be gradual and effected through practical methods and if not it is a failure.

    The big question is not whether devolution is going result in fragmentation per se. The big question is whether it is going to be a solution to an ethnic and ethno religious issues engulfing the Sri Lankan society. Supposing full devolution is given to provinces. Supposing a particular province has an ethnic identity associated. (Say Tamil in Northern Province and Muslim in newly created South East Province) What is the position of the ethnic minority in other provinces? Say on the other hand if there is a Muslim in the Northern Province he can be told that you fellows cannot dance around her wearing Hijabs here. Go to your plot of land if you want to wear your Hijab. Supposing in South East Province they were to limit the number of Hindu temples and the aggrieved parties can be told you have a plot of land reserved for you people. Would not then it be another Indo Pakistan separation without the theoretical separation?

    The world is aware only of the 1983 Pogrom. What happened to cleansing of Muslims in NP?

  • 4
    0

    I thought GL Pieris did not have “Konda Pana” now he has proved beyond doubt with his lies that he does not even have “honesty and integrity”. Why do we need puppets like him who are manipulated by Mahinda Rajapakse? GLP has lost his sole and there is nothing more he can lose!

  • 1
    5

    Prof. G.L. Peiris:

    As I understand, Sri lanka is a federal govt because of the 13th amendment. They want to make it a completely federal structure with the amalgamated north and east. On the other hand, muslims also prepares for hmuslims only area in the east.

    Prof. PEriris should show that is also a leader. Don’t get politician – theives in your party. IF you can gang up with the handful of trustworthy politicians and abolish the 13th amendment. Sharing political power will never work. Because, they will want more later.

    Mahinda Rajapakse’s only goal is to make Namal Rajapakse the king at all cost.

    • 1
      0

      Jim Softy,

      Rivers very rarely reverse their direction of flow. I

      Dr.RN

  • 0
    3

    Canada is the second largest country in the world. India is a gathering of so many different nations. So, they need Federalism in order to govern. In the case of Sri lanka, country is being devided because, Tamils are looking for a country.

    Don’t let that happen. As an academic, you may not understand how the other bottom feeding politicians are handling you. They all are manipulating it for their benefit. Become a leader and don’t let this happen. 13th amendment need to go. Forget the new constitution. Ranil is screwing it up.

    • 2
      0

      jim softy

      you write…..Don’t let that happen.

      Well, well, what has brought us to this? As I remember, hardly had the last white mastah left us, than we turned on the minorities and made their lives hell.First the Burghers went, no fuss as they boarded ships in the Colombo jetty heading for more welcoming faraway lands. Our Tamil brethren had a much longer affinity with this land and they wanted to go nowhere; this was their motherland too. Our behaviour to the Tamils, in the 50’s and onwards, was despicable. Completely out of sync with the high Buddhist ideals that most like to profess. The vast majority chose to follow the devious politicians who led us into the valley of death, so that they could divide and rule.

      If only we could turn the clock back; then we won’t let it happen.

    • 0
      0

      Hi Jimmy

      A Tamil lady is a leading lawyer in icy Alaska (a state of USA) specialising in native law. How come she acclaimed such a status when my people are producing babies every minute?

    • 0
      0

      Doesn’t matter how you beg Tamils will get federal system. You can chant : Gacham Saranam Gachami. But you will only get Gacham Saranam Federalism.

  • 0
    3

    May unity Government use this piece by GL to launch the Public Awareness campaign to bring in a new constitution. Also send him a Note of Appreciation to GL for the illuminating thoughts!!!!!.

  • 1
    0

    Here goes the once famous law wizard and Rhodes scholar on a now familiar course of disinformation.If we analyse his position on various issues since he came into politics in the 1990s, there have have been unbelievable twists and 360 degree ,turns all made to please his political master/mistress, and further his political survival in the process.No wonder Geneva Lost Pieris is very near to becoming Marbles Lost Pieris very soon.The very look in his face in the picture above suggests the end is close at hand.What a great tragedy for a man of his potential and talents.

    It all began when he began to compete with fellow Oxonian Kadirgamar for the Foreign Minister position which he finally succeeded in getting under the infamous Rajapaksa regime ,which incidentally was the period when our country achieved pariah status in the eyes of the world.GL was simply clueless and left the running of the Foreign Ministry in the hands of that murdrer pimp thug and grade 8 , high school drop out and the rest as they say is history.Gl was no match for the colossus Kadirgamar, be it in personality or diplomatic skills and Gl carried an inferiority complex always.

  • 5
    0

    Here goes the once famous law wizard and Rhodes scholar on a now familiar course of disinformation.If we analyse his position on various issues since he came into politics in the 1990s, there have have been unbelievable twists and 360 degree ,turns all made to please his political master/mistress, and further his political survival in the process.No wonder Geneva Lost Pieris is very near to becoming Marbles Lost Pieris very soon.The very look in his face in the picture above suggests the end is close at hand.What a great tragedy for a man of his potential and talents.

    It all began when he began to compete with fellow Oxonian Kadirgamar for the Foreign Minister position which he finally succeeded in getting under the infamous Rajapaksa regime ,which incidentally was the period when our country achieved pariah status in the eyes of the world.GL was simply clueless and left the running of the Foreign Ministry in the hands of that murdrer pimp thug and grade 8 , high school drop out Sajin Vass Gonna Wardena and the rest as they say is history.Gl was no match for the colossus Kadirgamar, be it in personality or diplomatic skills and Gl carried an inferiority complex always.

  • 3
    0

    The right person who should question Mr. G.L. Peiris on the above article is former President Mrs. CBK, under whom he served two terms
    and advised her that devolution of power to the regions is the only
    answer to the national problem and in fact he and Dr. Neelan Thiru-
    chelvam worked on it .
    How come, being an educated man, has come out boldly against his own past. Is it old age and dementia setting in.

  • 1
    1

    The proverbial elephant in the room totally absent in the whole discourse is the fact that majority of Tamils are living in Sinhala areas (areas outside the proposed Tamil homeland) Whom are we trying to fool by avoiding taking about them? What is the status of uthose Tamils who will be deprived of any fruits of federal set up? What kind of federal set up is that which excludes the the majority of the minority? For sure they will be subjected to utter discrimination. Sinhalese may once again consider even disenfranchising them.

    Soma

    • 0
      0

      soma,

      You are simply a sick person!

      “Sinhalese may once again consider even disenfranchising them.”

      Tamils are already disenfranchised technically without a suitable power sharing! You need to grow up and be a good Buddhist!

  • 0
    0

    Sri lanka is already a federal set up. Govt is giveing more powers. Why they are establishing a foreign ministry office in Jaffna ?

    • 0
      0

      Softy,

      You may want to read the essay again. Basically all federal systems, as per GL, came from separate entities uniting under one hood of central Government. Under that, before united, the units have been running their own governments. Having a Kacheri Jaffna and Batticaloa or having appointed governors to rule North and East do not make it a Federal System. 13A is only about governor’s rule. That is only decentralization of EP’s authority. For you, It hard to understand these thing so please just don’t bother about it.

      GL is mentioning about Muslims. Muslims became practically separate ethnicity only after MMDA. Earlier to that, their difference from other Tamils was just a tentative and not clear cut one like Tamils’ caste differences. After wedging between Tamils and Tamil Muslims for 70 years, Tamil Muslims are feeling advantages to be unified with Sinhala Buddhist on a religious basis rather than with Tamils on a secular basis. This is because the religious extremism of they both making one to shoulder the other. They both have been running the Sinhala-Muslims government s from 1948, against Tamils.

      GL is rewriting the Lankawe history as the country has been unitary. Historically it was not. In 1813 Sinhalese captured and handed over Tamil King, Vickerma Rajasinghan to colonist. Further, after 1900s there was no unitary feeling between the races. From 1917 to the 1947, the Sinhalese and Tamils could not feel unified. Abusing the 1947 constitution’s secular democratic nature, Sinhalese, through Majoritarianism, placed the claim for the whole country. Though a 150,000 strong army is occupying 350,000, there is no unification still. Further, in Canada, a vast number of French people are living out of Quebec in English speaking provinces. This is not affecting the Language based unique status of Quebec.

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