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Myanmar’s Development needs both ASEAN & China

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Authors: Thet Thu Thu Aye and Jamal Ait Laadam

Although Myanmar is one of the least developed countries in the world, it does have a couple of advantages to become an economically middle-level income and politically stable country in Asia. Geographically surrounded by China, India and Indochina, Myanmar is rich in terms of natural resources and has strategic importance as well. In addition, Myanmar won independence even earlier than its neighbors. Yet, during the Cold War, the leadership of Myanmar (then Burma) declared that it did not want to join ASEAN, which was seen as an imperialist pawn given its policy of neutrality. Officially speaking, Myanmar was admitted into ASEAN in 1997, yet the two sides saw each other with suspicion and uncertainties. One of the main reasons is that Myanmar could receive all kinds of its needs including security from China. However, politically since the 1990s, the pro-democracy leader of the country Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to the leaders of the ASEAN calling on the regional grouping to “nudge Burma towards democracy”. Yet, the reply was cautious as it said that since the ASEAN had advocated a policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar, it would do little good now to take a more confrontational approach. Due to this, it is pragmatic not to pursue a policy of exclusion, including economic sanctions simply because it was not likely to achieve the desired end.

But the last three decades of the 20th century witnessed the sea-changes all over the world: China’s start of economic reform, then the end of the Soviet Union as an ideological beacon, and meanwhile increased globalization of trade and FDI. In light of this, many ASEAN member states re-evaluated their interests and oriented the policy tools to meet the new situation. One aspect of this approach was the rekindling of ASEAN’s interest in Burma as a means to fortify its security, economic and political position. With the perception among ASEAN members evolved that China posed more of a threat at a time when the US security presence in East Asia obviously diminishing, this spurred interest in a security arrangement that would come to include China and Myanmar. Equally, by the end of the 1980s, Southeast Asia emerged as one of the most vibrant economic areas in the world. From 1981–90, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the region grew at a steady average of 6.1% per annum, and some countries grew at an even higher rate of 7–10% per annum. Fueling this growth was trade and investment from East Asia, such as Japan, South Korea and later China. Accordingly, ASEAN began to take measures to deepen its integration and engage new markets as its leaders became aware of growing economic competition from other regional trade blocs like North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the EU. One aspect of ASEAN’s action to remain competitive has been its enlargement to include all of Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar included. That means the ASEAN-10 offered a population of about 500 million, an area of 4.5 million square kms and a combined gross national product of US$ 685 billion, a total trade of US$ 720 billion and an ample supply of cheap natural resources. In the long term, Myanmar held the potential of 50 million new consumers for Southeast Asian goods as well as natural resources.

It is true that Myanmar has an abundance of inexpensive natural resources coveted by ASEAN, including lumber, natural gas and minerals. Politically, what had happened in the country also prompted ASEAN’s interest in constructive engagement. Since 1988, Myanmar began to implement far-reaching reforms of its economic system and foreign relations since the military government realized that it would have to seek external assistance to maintain control. As scholar Donald Seekins argued, the open economic policy in Myanmar after 1988 must be understood primarily in power political terms – a device for generating revenues for the military and building a stronger state. One crucial result was the flow of Chinese assistance in terms of military hardware, trade and investment blossomed overnight. In the span of 10 years, trade between Burma and China grew from $15 million to US$ 800 million. One influential aspect of the assistance was increased military training and hardware. From 1991 to 1995, about US$ 740 million of approximately US$ 1 billion in arms purchased by Burma came from China, including quite advanced weapon such as jet-fighter aircrafts, tanks, armored personnel carriers, radar, 3 frigates with missile capability, patrol boats, rocket carriers and small arms. Along with the Chinese hardware came other types of assistance: infrastructure development projects supported by the Chinese including the construction of a road and railways intended to link China’s landlocked hinterland – Yunnan province – with a deep water port on the Andaman. The infrastructure projects also provided easier access for China to the Indian Ocean. Other policy reforms inspired by the political uprising in 1988 included the liberalizing of foreign investment regulations in Burma, so that the regime could earn hard currency to support the country’s ailing economy. FDI flowed in from ASEAN, now that the terms were conducive to investment. One chief interest was the extraction of natural resources such as timber, gems, and offshore oil exploration. Key foreign investors included Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, along with Big Three from outside ASEAN.

As the region’s largest investor in Myanmar, Singapore’s support for the country’s admission into ASEAN was based upon a different set of concerns. Singapore had little if not nothing interest in human rights issues and no real objections to the Myanmar regime’s treatment of its political opponents, but was concerned about its handling of the country’s economy and particularly its policies towards foreign investment. Through their support of the Myanmar’s status in ASEAN, Singapore hoped to gain influence over the economic thinking of the military leaders and gain greater access to the country’s natural resources and huge market for weapons. Singapore has also long been a major supplier of arms to Burma. Equally, Indonesia’s support had historical roots, given the active role in the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asia-African solidarity. But ultimately it has been geopolitical considerations that tipped the balance of opinion in favor of granting membership to Myanmar. Besides the fear that excluding Myanmar from ASEAN could be viewed as an invitation to China to take a more prominent role in the country, Western condemnation of the regime, culminating in sanctions imposed by the United States, was perceived by some as an attempt to impose alien values on the region. At a time when the supposed superiority of “Asian values” was still a favorite theme of Asian leaders eager to argue that the region’s increasing prosperity was deeply rooted in their countries’ cultures, any attempt by the West to take the moral high ground was met with resentment and derision. For some Asian leaders, particularly Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, but to a lesser extent even others with more liberal views, admitting Myanmar was a way for ASEAN to indicate their rejection of Western condescension. The coincidence of these two events – the admission of Burma into ASEAN and the Asian economic crisis – immediately ignited speculation about a possible Western conspiracy. Meanwhile, after 2000 the EU began to adopt a softer approach towards Myanmar in the hope that some fresh overtures between the government and the opposition groups would emerge. Although some EU member states such as the U.K., Sweden and Denmark have continued to maintain their hardline position, they still want to see political openness and are ready to give in to the argument that sanctions against Burma have not worked; therefore it has become necessary to seek a compromise to end the current political deadlock. They urged Myanmar to solve political conflict through dialogue because only through dialogue will there be a national reconciliation that will bring about a stable and prosperous Myanmar.

In sum, the essence of Myanmar’s foreign policy is to develop friendly relations with all the countries of the world, particularly with its neighbors. Therefore it joined ASEAN with a view to promote regional peace, stability and prosperity through cooperation and integration with the other nations of Southeast Asia. While Southeast Asian leaders continue to hope that ASEAN’s constructive engagement policy serves to mitigate Chinese leverage on Myanmar, some are not at all sanguine about the country’s prospects. For example, Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed his view that “ASEAN cannot rescue Myanmar even if it wants to, and I have the awful feeling rescuing Burma is beyond the capability of even the USA. The Myanmar’s government may resent its growing dependency on China, but it is likely to remain necessary as long as it finds itself isolated from most of the rest of the international community. Particularly, China is not only a great neighbor but also the most vital economic and security partner, followed by Japan and India. As Myanmar’s leader expects China to act as a defender of its interests and image in the world affairs. In light of this, it is reasonable for Myanmar to work together with both ASEAN and China for mutual benefit in the peace and progress.

PhD candidate in International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China.

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Southeast Asia

The 38th ASEAN Summit Meeting: Agenda and Outcomes

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The 38th ASEAN summit meeting is held from October 26-28th and the list of areas to concentrate for the ASEAN would be far too many which includes focusing on the infrastructure projects, working on improved timelines for better implementation of the ASEAN Investment Area (intra ASEAN investment was $23 billion in 2021), emphasising on trade facilitation across ASEAN region, building better health facilities and pandemic infrastructure, and working on realisation of  the three pillars of ASEAN communities. With the possibility of US President Joe Biden attending the ASEAN summit meeting through video conferencing shows the relevance of this ASEAN meeting. In fact, the major discussions and debate will be about the challenges that the region faces regarding the pandemic, health issues and fulfilling the objective of better pandemic management through effective health network, diagnostics, and therapeutics. 

During the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting which was held in August 2021 the common motto was ‘we care, we prepare, we prosper’. During the meeting it was clearly earmarked that there is need for cohesive approach regarding ASEAN unity and centrality with a clear focus on saving people’s lives and protecting the ASEAN community by adhering to the common fundamentals of peace, prosperity, and progress. During the meeting the stress was regarding ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The emphasis on protecting ASEAN identity, centrality and creating awareness among the people of the region was seen as a major precursor for building regional institutions and strengthen bonds between nations. 

The member countries of ASEAN need to work on better managing the ASEAN Shield and working on unified response to disaster management through promotion of multilateral cooperation, respect in international law, striving to achieve peace, prosperity, and stability in the region. In fact, one of the areas which has gained much attention is regarding the 4th Industrial Revolution, developing better infrastructure for blue economy and promoting awareness among the department of foreign affairs in ASEAN countries. 

During the last one year, it has been found that the organization needs to cooperate in promoting institutional mechanisms related to public health emergencies and collaborating in promotion of trade and addressing challenges to the return of pre Covid-19 levels economic growth. This summit meeting needs to address what exactly are the possibilities for utilising the ASEAN COVID fund, and undertaking regional research mechanisms to protect the children from the third wave of the pandemic.

ASEAN on its own can work on a regional COVAX initiative which can promote better coordination and cooperation among the medical community for better diagnostics and therapeutics. In fact, ASEAN is on the cusp of developing a better infrastructure which can promote research development, logistics chain for distribution of vaccines, and working as a organized unit for better bargaining of the bulk purchase of vaccines at the regional level. This regional approach will also help in the global initiative of COVAX which will address this region as a cohesive one unit. This will further help in better access to the international medicines and developing a regional response to the vaccine passport. The Southeast Asian countries need to undertake regional protocols for safe travellers and thereby promote intra-regional business and tourism. This can also be done through ASEAN travel corridor bubble and undertaking a region wide protocol for countering the spread of the pandemic through tourists and business travellers. 

During the pandemic it has been acknowledged that while nations have been working hard to counter the side effects of the pandemic, but it needs a return to the sub regional initiatives in terms of economic recovery and sustainable development. The pandemic has also opened the avenues for promoting digital connectivity and creating mechanisms for sanitised logistics and cargo support. This will help in addressing sanitary and phytosanitary issues regarding trade within the region and even at transregional level. 

In fact, one of the areas where the ASEAN needs to work very cohesively is to integrate the ASEAN region through port network, regional connectivity grids, energy, and electricity networks, and promoting better e-commerce avenues. The digitalization of the region will also help in gaining significant leverage regarding the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and getting the support from the dialogue partners on smart cities project across the region. In terms of research in science and technology, and the future role those new emerging technologies would be playing, the ASEAN must work on a blueprint regarding developing the region as the Research Centre for critical technologies. Given the fact that there are more than thirty critical technologies items the Southeast Asian countries can pick any three from the list to develop their niche areas and undertake concerted efforts to develop that sector in their respective countries. To create awareness and develop scientific acumen there is need for ‘talent to technocrat initiative’ which can groom the promising scholars in this field and developed the network of nodal institution across Southeast Asia. 

While many issues which are non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, cyber security have been addressed time and again in different ASEAN meetings, but it needs to be seen that how the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined the criteria for achieving sustainable countermeasures in this regard. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia needs better management and compliant mechanism. There is also requirement that the region-specific cyber defence network and creating centres of excellence in this field. The cue can be taken from the NATO cyber security networks and how a cohesive response mechanism can be created. 

Maritime security and cooperation are the critical sectors which needs strong commitment from all the Southeast Asian nations. The UNSC sponsored special dialogue on maritime security outlines the need for addressing this from the point of view of climate change, illegal fishing, countering piracy, promotion of marine scientific research, safeguarding maritime trade and commerce. It should be acknowledged at the South China Sea is a major issue and the Southeast Asian countries should accept the deadline for the signing of the Code of Conduct (CoC) on South China Sea. Otherwise, it is expected that ASEAN centrality on resolving the South China Sea issues will be marred with internal frictions and tensions among the member countries. The dialogue partners already have outlined that there is need for consistent approach and engaging China in a compulsive manner so that certain protocols can be developed, and the status quo is maintained. 

It is also important to note that the role which has been played by ASEAN Maritime Forum and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum is much below par and therefore these institutions need to revisit their mandate and objectives to be the harbinger of new ideas in this field. One of the areas which needs active involvement of the Southeast Asian countries is the climate change and the need to shift to clean and renewable energy sources. These issues have been addressed through ASEAN plan of action for energy cooperation but there is a need for more research in promoting energy security and safe transition to new kinds of energies. 

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which was signed in November 2020 needs to gain momentum, and given the fact there is tardy progress about domestic ratification procedures, it has been felt that a quick response mechanism on ratification should be initiated. Further, the Southeast Asian countries should also work on developing their own domestic capacities in manufacturing and services so that the rules of origin issue can be better addressed. The rules of origin issue were one of the issues on which India had strong reservations. 

In terms of knowledge creation and education as well as human resource development this summit can achieve a lot. In the Manila summit held in 2017, it was highlighted that there is a need for employment generation and developing skills and capacities. It is opportune time after four years of the Manila summit to investigate what exactly has been achieved and whether there has been slow progress. The time has also come for reinforcing the role that the East Asia summit as the leaders forum can work on developing consensus on broad security strategic, economic, and political issues.

While ASEAN has clearly outlined its outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but it needs better structuring and identifying areas under which it can synergise its activities along with partners in the Indo Pacific. In terms of maritime cooperation, promoting connectivity and undertaking initiatives related to protection of marine life and developing protocols for sustainable harnessing of resources, there are immense possibilities. 

About South China Sea dispute there is need for working fast on the single draft code of conduct negotiating text and addressing this on a priority. ASEAN countries themselves can outline their outlook about compliance as per the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and promote that the ASEAN nations would be willing to subscribe to the legal regulations enshrined under the UNCLOS 1982.

If one evaluates Hanoi declaration 2020 related to the ASEAN community, it clearly stated that there is need for reviews of the blueprints of the ASEAN Community, ASEAN connectivity and initiative for ASEAN integration. These three documents need further review during this summit, and it is believed that a holistic approach should be adopted so that instead of rhetoric there is more tangible outcomes on ground. 

The recommendations for the ASEAN Summit are many. ASEAN should really acknowledge the need for concerted approach in the field of comprehensive regional cyber security strategy, developing national ASEAN community councils to create awareness and responsibilities, creating the digital support fund to provide access to millions in terms of governance and redressal of grievances, undertaking a time bound approach with regard to single draft on code of conduct in South China Sea, developing critical technologies hub which can be decentralised and the country should be assigned there are areas of expertise which it can develop in the next decade. ASEAN also needs to undertake futuristic vision by commissioning a governmental group of experts which can undertake feasibility studies to make this organization more buoyant and proactive. ASEAN can also develop architecture and logistics to harness the global initiative related to resilient supply chains and even participate in the Build Back a Better World(B3W) Initiative by G-7 countries.

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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