Three days after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar and condemning its military’s seizure of power, on 21 June 2021, the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing boarded on a special jet to Russia on a weeklong trip that would realign Myanmar’s foreign policy priorities amid growing post-coup isolationism. Though the said purpose of the visit was to attend the Moscow Conference on International Security, junta chief’s latest overture to Russia was indeed an elaborate arms shopping trip and a part of the regime’s desperate quest for global legitimacy and allies. While it may appear to the coup leader that the key to Kremlin’s heart is always through lucrative arms deals, developments suggest that Moscow’s reciprocation fell short of a full embrace.
In his meeting with Russian Defense Minister General Sergey Shoygu, Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing expressed his gratitude, saying, ‘Thanks to Russia, Tatmadaw has emerged as one of the strongest armies of the region.’ Russian military hardware, technology and training have been the lifeblood in Myanmar military’s modernization and diversification campaign that has started since Min Aung Hlaing assumed the position of Joint Chief of Staff in 2010. The outcomes of Min Aung Hlaing’s latest visit to Moscow in terms of arms purchase have not been disclosed. However, it was recently mentioned by the head of Russia’s AK Bars shipyard that an ASEAN country (possibly Myanmar) wants the company to build a patrol ship plant in that country and train its crew. Myanmar’s ‘notorious’ tycoon U Tay Za also flew in from Singapore, sat in meetings with regime leaders and was a part of Min Aung Hlaing’s entourage during the visit. Throughout the 2000s, U Tay Za’s business empire was integral to Tatmadaw’s plan to buy weapons from overseas while evading harsh sanctions from Western countries.
There are substantial reasons to assume that arms trade may account for a dominant part of the regime’s foreign policy reach out. Lucrative arms deals will be strategically used to buy silence or seek alliance of neighboring or influential countries. A country’s foreign policy is ideally shaped by the interests, values and aspirations of its people. However, in case of post-coup Myanmar, where the ruling regime stands at odds with the people’s interests, diplomatic outreach thrives on the trade of killing machines. Since domestic contracts for Russian arms companies have been slowly decreasing, Moscow is likely to exploit such opportunity to the fullest. India, a neighbor of Myanmar, is also likely to respond positively to such gestures considering that the country is seeking to boost its military export as a part of Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign and eyeing on a achieving a $26-billion defense industry, with US$5-billion defense exports by 2025.
Having extensive arms deals with neighboring and odd ball regimes have already reaped benefits for the junta. The United Nations General Assembly’ June resolution on Myanmar can be considered as an example. Belarus was the only country to vote against UNGA’s call to “prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”. The stance of Belarus, another authoritative regime, may owe to the country’s defense ties with Myanmar. Belarus is one of the largest arms exporters in the world and ranked 19th in Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s list of top 25 arms exporter 2016-20. According to Justice for Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation accounts for 13 percent of total Belarusian arms export. Belarus and Myanmar, under the previous junta regime, formed a joint commission for defense tech cooperation. Myanmar was the first country to procure Belarusian Kvadrat-M SAM missile system. The Eastern European country’s arms factories were visited by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in 2014 and by a parliamentary delegation led by the speaker of former USDP hybrid regime Major General Khin Aung Myint (rtd.) in 2017. Following junta’s killing spree on March 27 (Armed Forces Day) which took more than 100 lives all over Myanmar, Belarusian state media has published propaganda calling the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement activists ‘terrorists’.
Tatmadaw’s extensive reliance on Russian arms industry has also prompted the latter to assume an unusually vocal role in support of junta regime following the February 1 coup. Russia maintained a policy of describing the military takeover as a purely ‘domestic event of a sovereign state’ and contributed significantly in diluting statements from the United Nations Security Council condemning the coup. Russian support for the regime made a glaring manifestation when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander V. Fomin, in full military uniform, attended Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day celebrations, received medal and a ceremonial sword as a gift from a regime and expressed hope of more robust military ties in coming days. Myanmar’s democratic reform in the early 2010s coincided with an elaborate modernization campaign of its military. Former President Thein Sein voiced the need to create what he described as a ‘World Class Tatmadaw’. Min Aung Hlaing has been at the helm of Myanmar’s military since the modernization campaign started. One of the major goals of this campaign was to diversify the sources of Myanmar’s weaponry, i.e., reduce the reliance on Chinese military hardware. China’s historic support for Myanmar’s communist guerillas and its existing liaisons with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) has always prompted Tatmadaw to keep a cautious eye on its reliance on Beijing. Its relationship with Moscow, on the other hand, has been free of such historic baggage. As a result, between 1999 and 2018, Myanmar’s import of military hardware from Moscow (US$ 1.5 billion) stands closely with its import from Beijing (US$ 1.6 billion).
Coup leaders’ shopping spree comes at a time when Myanmar economy has been on the verge of a major collapse due to post-coup unrest and impact of covid-19. The World Bank has made prediction that by the end of 2021, Myanmar economy is likely to contract by 10 percent, a sharp reversal of its previous estimation made in October 2020 that the country might see a 5.9 percent growth in its economy. According to the estimation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the country’s population living below poverty line has doubled, going up to 25 million from 12 million. Even before coup, average income for more than 83 percent of households have been halved. According to World Food Programme (WFP), more than 3.4 million people, mostly in urban areas, will be hungry by the end of this year. In Junta’s attempt to make the economy functional, private banks have been threatened with fines and nationalization. Severe cash shortages, however, have made regular banking operations barely possible. As the country’s legal economy is about to go through a significant shrink cancelling the economic gains made over a decade, Myanmar’s illicit economy is likely to get a major boost. Previous military regimes have also encouraged unsustainable resource extraction as the easiest source of revenue. This would undoubtedly lead to environmental degradation and conflict with local populace where these resources are located at. Narcotic trade is also likely to receive a boost. Thailand has already seen a surge in the influx of methamphetamine pills. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also released a warning in this regard.
Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar army has not fought a single battle against external aggressions. Rather, its heavy-handed policy towards the ethnic groups and refusal to accept federalization envisaged as one of the founding principles of the country, have plunged Myanmar into a perpetual civil war. The coup and subsequent unrest have displaced an estimated 230,000 people in Myanmar. Tatmadaw’s offensives have disrupted the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and made the region the fifth largest source of refugees in the world. So, the great question, however, lies not on where these arms come from, but on where these arms will be used. The people of Myanmar are always on the receiving end of Tatmadaw’s bullets and salvos. A country’s foreign policy and diplomatic maneuvers is supposed to bring investments, new technologies, peace and progress. Under Myanmar’s regime, one can expect nothing but death and destruction.
Will Evolving Relation Between Arakan Army and NUG lead To Any Political Change in Myanmar?
On May 18, Myanmar’s Civilian National Unity Government (NUG) held an online meeting with the Arakan Army in the Rakhine (Arakan) state. Arakan Army Chief Major General Tuan Mrat Naing and his Deputy Brigadier General Neo Tun Aung spoke for about two hours with Foreign Minister Jin Mar Aung of the shadow government’s coalition relations committee and Democratic leader Wu Min Ko Ning. The NUG is believed to have taken the initiative in an effort to engage with armed groups that could help bring down Myanmar’s military regime. Basically, the current situation in Myanmar and the activities of the shadow government were discussed. This sudden alliance of NUG with the Arakan Army leads to the question: Is the political situation in Myanmar taking a new turn?
The current situation in Myanmar
After the military seized power in Myanmar, the anti-coup resistance group (PDF) and allies of their ethnic armed group have been fighting the junta for more than a year, with Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Chin ethnic groups, in particular, supporting the PDF. Myanmar’s military has not been able to contain the opposition, despite unwarranted attacks, lawsuits, assassinations and arson. On the contrary, in many parts of the country, the administrative system has collapsed, while their troops are losing due to killing and fleeing in the face of resistance. Resistance groups have, however, also failed to oust the junta or drive it out of their area altogether resulting in neither side having any decisive win yet. On the contrary, around 600,000 people have been displaced since the coup due to the civil war. About 30,000 people have taken shelter in India and 6,000 in Thailand. Though Myanmar’s economic prospects have almost shattered, the military sustains as strongly as its former military rulers. The impact of Western sanctions is negligible as multinational companies from China, Russia, India, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea are doing their usual business. On the other hand, The NUG government is trying to launch its own administrative system in central Myanmar (especially Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway-centric) through its armed forces PDF.
Relations between the Arakan Army and the NUG
Following the coup, in April last year, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), formed the NUG as a shadow government with lawmakers and allies of ethnic minorities to challenge the junta’s legitimacy at home and abroad. With the promise of a federal democratic union, if military rule ends, the NUG is trying to build trust with ethnic armed groups (EAOs) to fight the military rule. In this effort, NUG is establishing relations with the Arakan Army. On May 15, NUG issued a statement on the occasion of Rakhine National Day and expressed its condolences to the people affected by the military and political conflict in Rakhine. It has also promised to work with relevant agencies to establish justice. The shadow government sent a message of greetings and worked together on April 10, the 13th anniversary of the founding of the Arakan Army.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s relationship with the Arakan Army has not been good in the past. While came into power in 2015, the NLD-led government did not play a significant role in promoting democracy, human rights, and the autonomy of ethnic areas. Even having secured the largest number of seats in the Rakhine state, the NLD refused to allow the Arakan National Party (ANP) to elect a state chief minister. When war broke out in Arakan between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar army in 2018, the NLD clearly sided with the army, which angered the Rakhine people. The NLD administration at the time agreed to the world’s longest Internet shutdown in Rakhine State, branding the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and canceling elections in large parts of Rakhine State. These steps by the Aung San Suu Kyi government further tempted the Arakan Army to transform its demand for autonomy into a struggle for liberation and independence.
Relations between the Arakan Army and the Military Junta
The post-coup civil war situation spread throughout Myanmar, but the Rakhine state was an exception. A ceasefire agreed upon between the Military and the Arakan Army in November 2020 has kept the region relatively calm ever since. The Arakan Army has discouraged mass protests against the coup, and the Rakhine state remains relatively peaceful while other parts of the country were engulfed in violence. As a result, while the military was busy suppressing resistance across the country to consolidate its power, the political wing of the Arakan Army, the United League of Arakan, established administrative control over two-thirds of the state (especially rural areas) and introduced its own tax system and judiciary. To ensure stability in Rakhine, the junta also, as part of its political and military strategy, withdrew the Internet blackout in Rakhine and withdrew the Arakan Army from the list of terrorist organizations after the coup, and released many political prisoners associated with it.
But, the Arakan Army’s recent reluctance to meet directly with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and its currently evolving relational proximity to the NUG has made the military rethink its strategic and operational orientations toward the armed group to some extent, prompting the military to step up security in Rakhine and urge locals not to contact the Arakan Army. In response, the Arakan Army is also threatening the head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, accusing it of interfering in internal affairs. There have also been a few minor clashes between the two forces, such as an exchange of fire, signaling likely future disability.
Change on Course
Although the Arakan Army has not yet institutionalized a dream of independence of independent Arakan, they are committed to gaining autonomy. And the Arakan Army has an endless opportunity to gain international support by involving the Rohingya in gaining autonomy purposefully demonstrated by Arakan Army Chief General Tuan Mrat Naing while making positive comments in favor of Rohingya repatriation and civil rights to the Rohingya. NUG has already announced that it will return civil rights to the Rohingya, with the implicit intent of gaining international recognition. It has even supported the ongoing jurisdiction in the International Court of Justice on the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Myanmar army against the Rohingya.
The Myanmar army has been pursuing a policy of procrastination with respect to the Rohingya repatriation, effectively to gain the support of the Bamar tribe in line with its long-standing policy of feeding Buddhist Nationalism for political scores. However, the experience of the Bamar people being persecuted by the junta in the post-coup period has created an anti-military attitude in the Bamar tribe itself. Now the military is hanging the Rohingya repatriation issue as a trump card in the international arena though they have the potential for international sympathy by repatriating the Rohingya.
If the Arakan Army changes its current silent stance in favor of the NUG, the landscape of Myanmar’s internal politics may change. Realizing that, NUG is trying to gain the support of the Arakan Army. Now evolving relational proximity between the Arakan Army and NUG will likely invigorate the already growing collective resistance further against the oppressive Junta regime. With the potential for further change in the already complex political landscape in Myanmar, now the question is: How much will the military Junta change its current policy orientation, be it to the people’s democratic aspiration or rights to the Rohingya minorities?
18 Months Under Military Rule: What can ASEAN still do about Myanmar?
Authors: Teh Zi Yee & Nory Ly*
18 months after the military coup, the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar has become an economic, political, and humanitarian disaster for the country with no end in sight. There have been mass protests, armed resistance, and mass killings in the country since the military seized power on 1 February 2021.
According to the United Nations as of June 2022, over 14.4 million people need spontaneous humanitarian assistance, and more than one million people have been displaced internally. In addition, the Myanmar military junta has killed hundreds of protesters and detained thousands of activists and government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military junta has also drawn international condemnation over its recent execution of four democracy activists. While ASEAN has been seen as a key player in bringing peace to Myanmar with the Five-Point Consensus reached in April 2021, the bloc has failed to achieve a breakthrough in issues related to the situation in the country.
The first three-day trip to Myanmar by Cambodian Foreign Minister and ASEAN Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn was seen as relatively unsuccessful as the special envoy was only allowed to meet certain junta-aligned figures, and the trip did not come with any breakthroughs. Similarly, the special envoy’s second official trip to the country was denied access to key stakeholders on the issue, but the trip was at least concluded with some progress, notably on the expediting of the delivery of humanitarian assistance. As a regional organization, it is within the interest of ASEAN as a whole that Myanmar’s crisis be resolved. Below are five recommendations for ASEAN to tackle Myanmar’s worsening crisis:
1) Review the non-interference policy amid the Myanmar crisis
The non-interference principle, a decades-long policy of ASEAN, has resulted in the “hands-off policy” or the so-called “wait and see” approach of some ASEAN countries towards the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. It has been argued that ASEAN prioritizes the non-interference principle over democracy and human rights as a non-intrusive regional organization because some of its member states have undemocratic regimes.
While the non-interference principle guarantees ASEAN member states’ independence and sovereignty, it also limits the bloc’s capability to give a forceful collective response to resolve the dismal political crisis in Myanmar. It is encouraging to see that Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, has once openly called on ASEAN to rethink its non-interference policy amidst the Myanmar crisis, but it will not be easy for the bloc to change the non-interference policy since each ASEAN member state has taken their respective stance on the situation.
It is good that ASEAN took the unprecedented step of not inviting the military regime and its foreign minister to the ASEAN summit and ministers’ meeting, but there is still a need for engagement. ASEAN member states need to continue to invite “non-political” Myanmar representatives to participate in formal diplomatic dialogues and discussions until the regime makes acceptable and significant progress on the 5PC. In addition, ASEAN as a whole will have to review its non-interference policy through diplomatic talks and use a more flexible approach that allows any forceful actions to be taken to tackle the situation in Myanmar, including suspending Myanmar’s ASEAN membership if necessary. Currently, ASEAN member states are locked and tied by their firm commitment to the principle of non-interference. As long as ASEAN sticks to the non-interference policy, it will be difficult for the bloc to address the Myanmar situation effectively.
2) Strengthen the Five-Point Consensus
ASEAN as a whole has been criticized for being relatively soft on the military junta, which leads to little meaningful progress made on the Five-Point Consensus (5PC). While the ASEAN special envoy reaffirmed the implementation of the 5PC during his second visit to Myanmar, the viability of the 5PC has been questioned by critics. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has once criticized Southeast Asian governments for not doing enough to push the military junta to adhere to the 5PC, urging them to put stronger pressure on the country’s military administration to end violence against its people and move back to the democratic path.
At this point in time, the most noticeable progress made is the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but the other important commitments of the 5PC will also need to be measured and monitored closely, including constructive dialogues among “all parties” concerned and immediate cessation of violence in the country.
Since the implementation of the 5PC, there has been no inclusive or fair consultation between all key stakeholders in the ASEAN-junta dialogue. It is imperative that the bloc progressively reviews the consensus in order to uphold the leverage and shape it more effectively to begin an inclusive political dialogue that includes all the relevant stakeholders. The bloc could also, if possible, set deadlines on the 5PC so as to regularly monitor the progress and achieve the desired results of the consensus while assessing the situation. Setting a clear timeline enables the tracking of the progress on the 5PC and holds the junta accountable for adhering to the consensus.
3) Impose sanctions and restrictive measures on the Myanmar junta
The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on individuals and groups linked to Myanmar’s military junta in response to the military coup against the democratically elected government. ASEAN governments can consider imposing appropriate sanctions on the Myanmar military if the military-led government continues to commit numerous abuses against the population in the country and does not free the government officials and activists.
These sanctions can target Myanmar armed dealers and companies responsible for supplying the Myanmar military regime with weapons and equipment. ASEAN governments may also consider imposing restrictions on these individuals’ financial transactions, such as suspending access to their financial accounts if they have such bank accounts in any of the ASEAN countries. Measures can also be taken to prohibit these military junta-aligned individuals and entities from trading and doing business with individuals and regional companies across Southeast Asia if the military junta continues its brutal campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar. The greater the international sanctions imposed against the military junta, the higher the likelihood of bringing them to the negotiating table and ending its oppression in the country.
4) Engage with the National Unity Government
The National Unity Government (NUG) is Myanmar’s shadow government formed by representatives from the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi and others after the military coup. In October 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to recognize the NUG and its parliamentary committee as the only legitimate representatives of the country.
Saifuddin has once proposed engaging with the NUG informally as part of the bloc’s efforts to end Myanmar’s crisis, and the move was commended by Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The other ASEAN countries should consider joining Malaysia in taking decisive steps to engage with the NUG representatives and the other relevant stakeholders through informal diplomatic dialogues if there is still no significant progress made by the military government to implement the 5PC.
The ASEAN governments may also consider offering to hold a few meetings with the NUG representatives in their respective countries to show support for the NUG. This approach would help ASEAN play a more active role in stepping up pressure on the military junta and bringing them to the negotiating table. While the military government fails to cooperate with the international community to stop the violence against its own people, the bloc should instead work and engage with the NUG and other key stakeholders to resolve the crisis and restore democracy in the country.
5) Provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar
As many Myanmar citizens are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis due to the economic stagnation after the military coup and the spread of COVID-19, additional humanitarian aid is needed to help the people of Myanmar. The UN announced the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Myanmar on 30 January 2022, appealing to the international community to assist the US $826 million to meet the humanitarian needs of 6.2 million targeted people or 11 percent of the population. However, only 10.5 per cent of the HRP has been funded as of June 2022. It is encouraging to see that the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) has been working on providing immediate humanitarian aid to Myanmar. After the first official visit, the ASEAN Chair conducted the Consultative Meeting on ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance to Myanmar in May 2022 to discuss a more efficient method of ensuring responsive humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar.
On top of that, ASEAN governments should also proactively engage the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, to establish a humanitarian coalition that includes the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other humanitarian partners for better humanitarian coordination. Additionally, ASEAN governments can also provide humanitarian aid through local humanitarian networks, community-based organizations, and ethnic service providers. As the humanitarian crisis is worsening in Myanmar, it is important for ASEAN as a whole to improve its response to better tackle the humanitarian crisis in the country.
Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar requires some degree of openness and stability in the country as well as joint efforts by neighboring countries to deliver aid to the Burmese people via the Thai-Myanmar border as an alternative channel. While the military junta is blocking international humanitarian groups from delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid to millions of displaced people in the country, the bloc should work together with the international community to press the junta to end its abuses and to allow aid to be delivered.
*Nory Ly is Director of Research and Project Management for the ASEAN Youth Advocates Network (AYAN) Cambodia. Her research interests include U.S. foreign policy, Southeast Asia diplomacy, international security and defense, and Indo-Pacific diplomacy.
The Year of ASEAN Centrality
The year 2022 is a special one for ASEAN as a number of its prominent members have taken over the chairmanship in some of the key global and regional organisations. In particular Indonesia is the chair of the G20 and is actively preparing to conduct the G20 summit, while Thailand is the Chair in APEC. In view of the progress made by ASEAN in fostering regional stability in South-East Asia and the diversified network of global alliances forged by the grouping and its individual members, there may be a case for a more global role that may be taken on by ASEAN in the coming years.
One of the important aspects of ASEAN’s greater capability to play a global role on the international stage is its neutrality that the bloc is observing amid the rising rivalry between China and the US in the Pacific. Singapore as one of the leading economies of the region has performed an important mediation role in conducting US-China and US-North Korea meetings directed at de-escalating tensions. Accordingly, ASEAN may be in a position to lead the creation of a platform of countries/regional organisations that can coordinate efforts at peace mediation on a global level.
In pursuing the quest for maintaining a balanced and neutral position on the international arena there may be scope for ASEAN to explore the possibilities of greater cooperation with the cooperative arrangements that bring together the Global South and the advanced economies. ASEAN has made significant advances in this direction via building the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) together with China, Japan and South Korea. At the same time there remains scope to complement the active ASEAN-EU links with greater engagement of ASEAN countries with the platforms developed by the Global South. In particular, ASEAN could become one of the key pillars in the BRICS+ global platform, it could also play a leading role in the creation of platform for Eurasia’s developing economies (Greater Eurasia).
Furthermore, ASEAN could also be a leading force in advancing cooperation between regional integration arrangements. Such a role would be indispensable at this critical juncture for the world economy when there is still no global mechanism for a horizontal cooperation across regional integration blocs and the lack of diplomatic communication lines at the country-level. In this respect, given its neutrality and mediation capabilities ASEAN could lead the creation of such a global platform for regional integration arrangements – something that it could pursue on the basis of an R20 (regional 20) format within the G20. Such an R20 platform could bring together the regional integration arrangements where G20 countries are members (including ASEAN). Currently the G20 has only one regional integration bloc as its member – namely the EU – there should be no reason at this stage why ASEAN and other leading regional integration arrangements would not join the Europeans in bringing greater inclusivity and legitimacy to the G20.
There are a number of other venues that could be pursued by ASEAN in making an impact on global economic development. One possible path would be to create a “circle of friends” among those regional economies as well as economies across the globe that share the values of ASEAN. Such an approach that may be termed as ASEAN+ could involve the creation of cooperative platforms along the key development trajectories such as green development, digital economy, education and health care (human capital development). In the digital space there may be scope to make use of Singapore’s experience in building the digital economic agreements and to scale up such arrangements to the level of not just-country-to-country but also region-to-region and RTA-to-RTA (digital “integration of integrations”). ASEAN can also play a more active role in global and multilateral organisations such as the WTO. In particular, ASEAN can forge alliances within the global institutions with other regional groups from the Global South to promote an agenda of lower protectionism and greater openness.
In the end, now is the time when various regions of the world economy will start to advance their visions and strategies for globalisation. The process of globalisation is no longer something preordained or predetermined by one country or region – the concepts and the visions of globalisation are de-monopolised and will emerge increasingly in different parts of the international community. ASEAN can become one of the leading forces of a rejuvenated drive at a globalisation that is balanced, inclusive and sustainable.
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