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Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s democratic experiment on a murky path

Aung San Suu, ICJ/Frank van Beek

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) claims victory in the November 8 election, the second freely-contested poll since Myanmar broke away from complete military dictatorship in 2011. But, the military-aligned Opposition party refuses to concede. As it turns out, the country’s democracy stares at a gloomy prospect.

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The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, with its 37 million eligible voters including 5 million first-timers, went to polls on November 8 in its second free and openly contested elections since the former British colony came out of military dictatorship in 2011. But, the army still yields considerable influence in the ruling establishment.

Incumbent State Counselor (equivalent to the role of a prime minister), the75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)claims to have won the election held in earlier this week to retain power.

But, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Opposition refused to accept the results terming it as ‘unfair’ and called for a fresh vote, adding up to the political turmoil in presumably Asia’s newest democratic experiment.

Suu Kyi is still the country’s most popular politician, the youngest daughter of Aung San, father of the modern nation of Myanmar. And her party, the NLD, has a strong nation-wide presence, particularly among the majority ethnic Bamars, who makes up 70% of the country’s population.

In its first free election held in 2015, the NLD had won a landslide victory improving the prospects for institutionalization of democracy in the predominantly Buddhist state. However, whichever party wins, it has to share power with the military for which 25 % of non-elected parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for, and additionally three key ministries in the government.

In total, 87 parties competed in the 2020 election. Many were ethnic parties, and most of the other parties were founded by Suu Kyi’s former aides who broke away from her later. Historically, the military has resisted attempts aimed at reforms that would reduce its power. It was in 1962 Myanmar fell to a military dictatorship that would remain in power for the next five decades.

Suu Kyi returned to then Burma in 1988 after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the abuses of the military junta, she led the calls for the country’s democratization. In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests, she formed the NLD as a political platform to discuss democracy and human rights.

Even though the NLD contested and won the elections held in 1990 the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from forming. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military in the next year.

She continued her struggle and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was held in house arrest for almost two decades with intervals in between. Elections were held again in 2010. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, and a nominally civilian government was installed, ending nearly five decades of military rule.

Four years later, in Myanmar’s first free and openly contested election in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory, a sign of Suu Kyi’s popularity among the masses. Burmese people respectfully called her ‘Amay Suu’ (Mother Suu) or simply ‘the Lady’.

The renewed political system paved the path for an economic recovery and development, reaffirming that an inclusive democracy can deliver prosperity. But, the government’s treatment of ethnic minorities, curtailment of press freedom, and looming intolerance to the ethnic insurgencies attracted criticisms from around the world.

In 2017, a black stain clouded the Suu Kyi government’s image as it approved a military crackdown on the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority belonging to the Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western coast, accusing them of militancy, and led to at least 750,000 of them fleeing to nearby Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere, eventually leading to a refugee crisis and many internally displaced too.

Deprived of citizenship or statehood, the Rohingyas are widely seen in Myanmar as illegal ‘Bengalis’ even though they have lived in the predominantly-Buddhist country for generations. The Rohingyas were subjected to ‘clearance operations’ by the military including arson, rape and extra-judicial killings. The United Nations consider them as the most persecuted minority in the world.

Since 2015, the Suu Kyi administration has arrested scores of students, artists and farmers, simply for expressing their political views in the past five years. Her democratic ideals gradually disappeared,owing to the military’s continuing influence on her decisional autonomy as the head of government and possibly her continued political leadership itself.

Year 2019 saw the former Peace Nobel laureate nose-diving from a champion of democracy and human rights icon to genocide denier when she defended the crackdown on Rohingya militia while appearing on behalf of the Burmese government at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, denying all charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing against her government and the military.

Western-led organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations had expressed their disappointment with the Lady’s changed behaviour that contradicted the very ideals she previously stood for during her struggle against the junta-rule in the 1990s and 2000s. Similar concerns have been expressed by a handful of other organisations and countries the West, as well.

Following the 2020 election, the EU commended the high voter turnout and peaceful polls but also called for the full inclusion of all ethnic, religious and minority groups of the country, hinting atthe Rohingya crisis.

With Buddhist ultra-nationalism thriving with hate and fear mongering monks dominating public discourse with an opaque power sharing arrangement between the civilian and military ruling classes, Myanmar’s internal democracy and social cohesion between the majority and the minorities lie on a murky path.

With the Lady effectively playing second fiddle to the military, Myanmar stares at a gloomy future. Rising Chinese economic interest in the Bay of Bengal littoral state could also prove detrimental to the democratic project’s long-term prospects and the region’s stability.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Southeast Asia

ASEAN Peace Initiative and the Myanmar Crisis: A Failed Attempt?

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Historically, ASEAN is closely linked with Myanmar. As part of the Southeast Asian region and an ASEAN member, Myanmar enjoys a huge significance. ASEAN has often been criticized outside the region for its role in Myanmar since the Cold War days. The rejection of the electoral verdict in 1990 in Myanmar by the military regime and subsequent brutal crackdown against the National League for Democracy (NLD) activists and protesters put the ASEAN regional group in a dilemma. Nevertheless, ASEAN did not abandon Myanmar and continued its membership. ASEAN has done very little about the brutality and atrocities of the Myanmar military regime against the Rohingyas, who are the largest group of stateless people in the world. The displacement of more than 2 million Rohingyas outside Myanmar, including 1.1 million in Bangladesh, could not draw the considerable attention of its members to take effective actions against the military.

Nevertheless, ASEAN is a key multilateral platform for regional dialogue as well as for promoting peace and stability in the region and specifically in Myanmar against the backdrop of the post-military coup in the country. On February 1, Myanmar’s military seized power. The country’s political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi were detained. Protests have been going on in the country since then. More than 832 civilians, including children have been killed in two and half month protests by the army and police in Myanmar, according to the right group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). More than 3,000 protesters, including journalists and artists have been detained.

ASEAN seeks talks between Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the government of military Junta Min Aung Hlai to restore peace in the country. It sees no alternatives to peace talks in Myanmar. For this, the group has offered to mediate to bring all the disputing parties into the discussion. At the same time, the leaders of the alliance have agreed in principle to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. Accordingly, the ASEAN convened a special and emergency Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in April 2021 to discuss a pathway to overcome the domestic political crisis in Myanmar.

The supreme coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Jakarta on his first foreign trip since the military coup in Myanmar and joined the special meeting of the regional alliance ASEAN of 10 countries. During the summit, the ASEAN leaders voiced the demands such as stopping the bloodshed in Myanmar in the name of suppressing the protests, keeping the door open for talks, restoring democracy and releasing the political prisoners. Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, the host country of the summit stressed that the junta government must promise to end violence in Myanmar. Democracy, stability, and peace must be restored. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhiuddin Yassin called for an end to the ongoing killings and atrocities in Myanmar as he reiterated, “I hope Myanmar will unconditionally consider Malaysia’s offer to release political prisoners immediately.”  The Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Long expressed hope that the military would comply with the call and initiatives of ASEAN countries to restore peace in Myanmar.

Following the summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi delivered a press conference on behalf of the group. He expressed his deep concern about the ongoing violence in Myanmar. The number of killings and injured is constantly increasing. There are no signs of restoration of democracy in the country. ASEAN issued a statement expressing a “five-point consensus” on Myanmar’s crisis. It called for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, and mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels, and a visit to Myanmar by the special ASEAN envoy to meet all concerned parties. ASEAN hopes to initiate a longer-term framework process, starting with ending the violence that will help facilitate dialogue among all the stakeholders in Myanmar, not just with the military regime.

On the ground, the ASEAN peace initiative has raised more questions about its implementation. The Myanmar Junta government has hardly listened to the ASEAN peace initiative and subsequent ASEAN diplomatic strides. It has even blatantly failed to keep their own words promised in the special summit. Demonstrations have continued in many parts of the country since meeting, as many have been killed, arrested and attacked by security forces. More ominously, the military regime, in an utter violation of the spirit of the summit, launched an initiative to dissolve the National League for Democracy (NLD), a party that swept in the 2020 elections by a landslide victory of winning 399 seats exceeding the number of seats of 322 grabbed in 2015. It won more than 80% of the votes proving its epochal popularity among the masses in Myanmar. The military-appointed Chief of Myanmar’s election commission, Thein Soe, declared the possibility of disbanding NLD over allegations of fraud. It has literally killed the prospect of any positive changes by the ASEAN peace initiative. Besides, the opposition political parties and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) leaders also expressed their doubts about the success of the peace initiative due to ASEAN’s ineffective and mild approach to the Junta government.

In this context, a successful regional organization like the ASEAN cannot sit idle to such acts of the military regime in Myanmar. As part of short-term role, ASEAN should, at least, tackle the situation in a way that would allow open discussion on any urgent action that its member states can take to de-escalate political tensions, prevent bloodshed and to put a stop to hostilities perpetrated by the military junta. This could help prevent the loss of life and the further deterioration of the economic and political situation in the country. The ASEAN should treat the Myanmar issue as a matter of utmost urgency precisely because of two important considerations.  First, it is a critical matter that ASEAN has the prime responsibility to respond to the current political crisis in Myanmar that has a colossal impact on basic tenets of democratization, human rights, human security and livelihoods of people. The second vital factor is to avoid the recurrence of spill-over effects that the on-going political turmoil in Myanmar may produce cross-border and regional repercussions. Particularly, it would negatively impact neighbouring countries. For instance, if the crisis escalates to an unprecedented level and is not resolved peacefully, it will more or less produce similar cross-border repercussions exemplified by the aftermath of the 1988 student uprising and the May 1990 elections. 

The massive exodus of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh is the biggest tragedy of the contemporary world linked with the actions of the military leaders in Myanmar over the decades. If these cross-border issues and consequences are to be prevented from happening again, ASEAN member states must deal with the Myanmar debacle squarely and resolutely. ASEAN can, at least, put effective pressure on the military Junta to first and foremost respect the results of the November 8, 2020 elections, release Suu Kyi and all political detainees, then go back to the negotiating table and discuss with the legally constituted and democratically elected members of the NLD on how they can work together to resolve their differences. ASEAN and the rest of the international community must not allow the political situation in Myanmar to further deteriorate as it would lead to the worsening of an already dire situation for its people and the region. ASEAN member states must heed to the call of the people of Myanmar for help and assistance. Their safety and security heavily rely on the continued support of the international community in general, ASEAN in particular. Experts argue that whether ASEAN succeeds or fails in providing a solution to the Myanmar crisis would determine its final score in the larger geopolitical strategic game. It is more so when the global and regional powers are engaged in geopolitical rivalry sacrificing the interests of people, including the marginalized communities such as the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The failure of ASEAN will turn into a disaster in regional diplomacy to deal with the Myanmar crisis.

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China – Myanmar relations

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While addressing a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi expressed China’s grave concerns over the Myanmar issue. Wang reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue playing a constructive role, saying that China is all ready to work with ASEAN on Myanmar-related problems. Wang Yi was addressing the special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting to commemorate the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations held on June 7, 2021, at Chongqing Municipality, South West of China.

Wang further emphasized that all parties in Myanmar should prioritize the interests of the people, exercise moderation, and eradicate all forms of violence. China can assist in economic recovery, enhance its people’s livelihoods, and protect their rights and interests. He stated that China welcomes all parties to conduct political discourse under the constitution and legal framework to resume the path of democratic change, adding that China remains ready to cooperate with ASEAN to give help to Myanmar in the face of COVID-19.

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. The relations between two, have been characterized as “kinsfolk” (pauk-phaw in Burmese), a phrase coined in the 1950s. The relations between China and Myanmar have gone through various ups and downs. Formal relations between the two dates back to late 1940 when both countries mutually recognized each other. Until the 1960’s two nations have enjoyed warm bilateral relations. Things got complicated in 1967 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Yangon. Bilateral relations between them again touched a high point in 1988 when they signed a ‘cross-border trade agreement’ that finally put an end to Myanmar’s lengthy isolation from the rest of the world. China was thus vigorously seeking a strategic channel to the Indian Ocean, mainly for its landlocked provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Later, the Chinese presence in Myanmar enlarged significantly in terms of financial and domestic affairs. In 2018, China was the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar with a direct investment of more than $15 billion on 126 business projects. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was Myanmar’s principal source of arms and ammunition. In more recent times, the Tatmadaw attempted to shift its arms supply dependence on China, though China is still the leading supplier, accounting for almost 50% of Myanmar armaments. Moreover, Myanmar is amongst the largest receivers of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds. It has continuously having China’s massive financial support for a set of infrastructural projects along the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) including projects related to transportation, industry, finance and communication. The construction of a deep-sea port and the development of a Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine State that connects Yunnan province via railway, are among the utmost significant developmental projects.

The recent coup of February 2021 raised serious apprehensions for China due to the factors which are multifold. Firstly, given the past events, it poses severe security threats to the neighboring Yunnan province as a spillover effect, for instance, 2017 had seen the death of five persons on the China side and the migration of thousands of refugees into the Yunnan Province in combat between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army, one of the four (Ethnic Armed Organizations)EAOs of the Northern Alliance. Additionally, it can halt the economic development of Yunnan, an impoverished province, draws investment because of its strategic location as a doorway to Southeast Asia. Secondly, Instability in Myanmar can be ruinous for China’s flagship project, Belt and Road Initiative. For the success of BRI, stability in neighborhood is indispensable. Thirdly, China can’t afford to have turmoil in the neighborhood. The instability in Myanmar is causing disturbances in the neighboring states too, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh when Myanmar’s army launched a brutal campaign on them in August 2017.

While China was enjoying stable and friendly relations with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent coup is by no means in favor of China Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C stated that  “A coup in no way is in Beijing’s interests. Beijing was working very well with the NLD”, he further added, “If Beijing has a choice, I think they would prefer the NLD over the military. But they don’t have a choice… so they have to deal with whatever comes along.”

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. In the current scenario, China can play a constructive role in somehow settling the Myanmar issue and support the ill-fated country to embrace stability.

Firstly, since the outbreak of Covid19, things got worse domestically in Myanmar due to the lack of a proper health care system. It can be a blessing in disguise for China and provides a golden opportunity to score some diplomatic points by providing vaccinations and playing a significant role in solving the combined public health and economic crises that would be a win-win situation for both nations. Secondly, China can use its influence being the sole and long term partner, to bring conflicting parties to the table to find amicable resolution of the conflict. Thirdly, China should keep investing in Myanmar and help it building its economy through more investments especially in development sector. Finally, China can utilize ASEAN option as mentioned by Wang Yi in latest statement. ASEAN and China can collaborate to devise amicable and practical resolution of the Myanmar problem.

Stable and peaceful Myanmar is in the interest of the whole region and China in particular. Considering, chaos in a neighboring country can have grim implications for China and its developmental projects,  China along with other regional actors need to find realistic solutions for durable peace and stability in Myanmar.

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The National Unity Government and the Rohingya Issue in Myanmar: A New Twist?

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In a Twitter message on 3 June 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar announced a new policy position about the Rohingya issue. Entitled as ‘Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State’ the NUG unequivocally spells out, “In honour of human rights and human dignity and also to eradicate the conflicts and root causes in the Union, the NUG aims to build up a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully. This objective is clearly stated in the Federal Democracy Charter.’ The statement further says, ‘We invite Rohingyas to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.’

This marks a monumental policy change on the Rohingya issue by the NUG that did not include any Rohingya when it was formed on April 16, 2021. It may be mentioned that the NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. International community particularly global civil society actors criticized the NUG for excluding the Rohingyas in the newly formed civilian government. It is, indeed, a question about the credibility of the government when it talks about federal democracy, but excludes a community who have been living in Myanmar for centuries.

The new statement from the NUG is a welcome development and an adjustment of their position with a genuine spirit of bringing all ethnic groups together and create a strong platform against the brutal and genocidal military regime in Myanmar. The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar is a watershed political development in the country that has dramatically changed the attitudes and perception oof the Myanmar people and the civilian political forces because of illegality, extreme form of brutality and betrayal to democratic change. The spontaneous social movements by the Myanmar people with a high risk of lives and livelihoods was perhaps unimaginable to the Junta government as well as global community. The civilian political forces possibly did not think such kind of sustained resistance in the form of Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Myanmar where people suffered direct military rule for more than five decades. Military rule was the order of the day in the country.

Against this backdrop, the statement of the NUG deserves a huge attention. Why has the NUG issue the statement? What is the significance of this statement for the status of the Rohingyas and the future of democracy in Myanmar? These questions are vital for establishing the rights of the Rohingyas who have been suffering as stateless people and living in different countries as the forcibly displaced people. Particularly, the presence of the 1.1 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh in the camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char is a stark reality and a great casualty of humanity in the present world where a country called Myanmar can force more than a million of its residents overnight and continue to show the defiance not to accept them. The world is virtually silent!

In understanding the significance of the statement of the NUG we can identify several issues that deserve to be taken into consideration. First, the reason behind the change of position of the NUG on the question of Rohingyas is clearly spelled out at the bottom of the statement where they have urged the Rohingyas to join the movement to oust the military regime in Myanmar. It is not only addressed to the Rohingya people, but also to the forces and parties in the world who are supporting the cause of the Rohingyas. From this perspective it has a huge diplomatic purpose to bolster the movement of the NUG and CDM in their fight against the military regime. Particularly, the Western world, the United Nations and the Muslim countries who have expressed their solidarity and compassion for the Rohingyas and have devoted their resources for them. Second, the statement is not just a declaration of support of the NUG to the Rohingyas. It contains a roadmap about solving the Rohingya crisis for which some of the members of the NUG were liable. The leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD) betrayed with the Rohingyas when their leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined hands with the Tatmadaw in 2011 and ruled the country jointly and ditched the cause of the Rohingyas.

The NLD leader also defended the crimes against humanity of the military leaders in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It was a true infidelity to the Rohingyas and also to her own long credentials as a fighter for democracy. Therefore, to establish a credibility of their declaration, the NUG shows a way-out to resolve the Rohingya crisis. They have promised to repeal and amend laws such as the 1982 Citizenship laws by the new constitution. This new Citizenship Act must base citizenship on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens. It is also mentioned that the NUG is in process of abolishing National Verification Cards to recognize Rohingyas as citizens. These two laws have discriminated for Rohingyas as the core ground. The NUG reaffirms to implement the aggrements signed with Rohingya repatriation and also agreed to Kofi Anan’s 88 points recommendations over Rohingya legal rights.

Third, the statement acknowledges the rights of Rohingya people and atrocity crimes they faced in Myanmar. The statement represents a shift from the persecution of the Rohingya by the military junta as well as previous governments, which routinely denied the existence of the Rohingya as well as evidence of mass atrocity crimes they suffered. The statement commits the NUG to ensuring justice and accountability for crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar. The NUG also affirmed its commitment to “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State. The NUG makes a bold promise, “We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history.” They have gone to the extent of profound redressing of the past crimes and injustice as they say, “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities.”

Fourth, a critical issue is how would the supporters and sympathizers of the Tatmadaw at home and abroad respond to this major policy reversal of the NUG and its leadership who once viewed the Rohingyas in the same eyes as with the Tatmadaw? Understandably, China, Russia, ASEAN, India and several pro-military regime actors would not find it encouraging. They may rule it out at a tactic of the NUG to garner the global support particularly from the UN and West. Fifth, whatever the reactions of the global community, the Tatmadaw would find it a new avenue of diplomatic pressure on them. However, they will rule out this position as the military regime has already declared the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. Rather, the Tatmadaw would appeal to the Buddhist nationalists and Bamar people that the NUG has a sinister objective to legitimize the Rohingyas as citizens of the country.

Finally, the crux of the matter is that it is a great victory of the Rohingyas to show the world that the successive Myanmar regimes – military and pseudo military – have used false narratives, including branding them as terrorists, to undermine their rights and justice in the country where they have been living for centuries with their own identity. The NUG has made it loud and clear to the world that the military junta in the country is pursuing an apartheid policy and committed the crimes against humanity widely referred as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’.

In conclusion, to mean the business and establish a credibility of their intention expressed in the new policy position, the NUG of Myanmar should appoint an ethnic-Rohingya member to the cabinet who would help it implement and expand upon its new policy on the rights of Rohingya people. The NUG must continue to highlight meaningful consultation with Rohingya people globally, including Rohingya women. This new twist in the position of the civilian leadership in Myanmar who once reigned power and supported the military regime is critical for the future of the Rohingya issue and if it sustains, then the prospect of democracy in the post-Tatmadaw Myanmar will energize pro-democracy forces and boost global support for the NUG.

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