by Nicola Perera
What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.
If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.
But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.
This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.
On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?
What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.
What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?
It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.
Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Integrity of Public Service
by Dr. Sarath Gamini
as the Chief Guest at the award ceremony of the “Integrity Icon 2021, Transparency International Sri Lanka”, at the BMICH on 11 January, 2022.
I have known about the Transparency International Sri Lanka as the watchdog for ensuring transparency, accountability, integrity, dignity and honesty of the public service. I have heard them resorting to seeking legal remedies when these qualities have been found to be wanting in various matters of public importance. The current sorry state of the nation on the verge of bankruptcy is due in large part to the lack of these essential qualities, resulting in corruption among the rulers and the public officials. To quote from their policy document, Integrity Icon programme, going on since 2018, is supposed to name and fame honest public officials while inspiring a new generation to build a more effective public service with transparency in all their dealings.
I salute you for your efforts to recognise public servants who have been showing great resilience in the course of their duties with integrity, dignity and a great sense of humanity amidst many obstacles. These qualities are especially important at a time when mankind is facing the biggest challenge of our lifetime with the COVID pandemic ravaging every country in the world. One cannot think of any other calamity, natural or man-made, that affected every individual nation in the world with long term repercussions on the very survival of some. No other emergency has demanded honest, selfless efforts of the public service to this extent. I note with appreciation your timely focus on the pandemic this year.
Despite the growing participation of the private sector, in many spheres, in the past several decades, it is the public sector that serves the vital function of providing the basic needs for the vast majority of the population. Ranging from provision of daily requirements of basic living, education, healthcare and transport services, one cannot think of any service solely provided by the private sector.
With an overburdened public service, which the authorities now claim is too heavy to be maintained economically, due to their own fault of poor planning, the public servants are often a neglected and distressed lot, with no one to care for them, apart from a few active trade unions. When they are underpaid, with salaries not in keeping with the ever-rising cost of living, denied progress with promotions, and having to cope with many personal and domestic issues, they are necessarily a frustrated lot. To aggravate matters, unscrupulous politicians, with no transparency in their policies or actions, have been interfering with every aspect of their service, with political patronage being the main criterion for promotions, transfers and the like. Under such circumstances, it may be considered unreasonable to expect an honest service from such an aggrieved group, when honesty, efficiency or integrity are not recognised or rewarded by the authorities.
The governments concentrates on building highways, used mainly by the affluent, with private vehicles for quick transit often for pleasure activities, it is sad to note that due to the very nature of such highway systems, the common man’s modes of transport ,like the three wheelers, and motor cycles, are denied access. Urban transport for the public servants to get to their places of work remains rudimentary. Overcrowded buses and trains with people precariously hanging on to footboards is a common sight still as it was several decades ago. During rush hours in the morning and evening, people waste much time on the roads awaiting buses or trains that do not ply on time, to get to their places of work and to return home in the evening.
While much is spent on laying walking paths in the urban areas, it is depressing to see daily on television screens, how villagers walk miles on footpaths to fetch clean water for daily consumption, to take their sick to the hospital short of essential supplies, and how the children cross risky make-shift bridges to get to a school with not even the basic facilities for a decent education.
These are areas not served by the private sector. The teachers, postal workers, public health inspectors, public health midwives and other healthcare workers and the Grama Niladharis are undergoing all the hardship in serving these people, generally neglected by others. Whenever these villagers are interviewed, they never complain about the services provided while lamenting on the poor quality of the infrastructure. They blame the local politicians who are seen only during the election campaigns, and regularly fail to attend to their needs once in power, leaving the villagers at the mercy of the public servants.
The private sector, naturally interested in profit-making mainly, has been uninterested in providing relief to see that these basic services are provided to the masses. While some large organisations have been doing some service as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), these are few and far between. The government has not focused on harnessing the private sector to any significant extent in organising such activity. Large private sector business groups are diversified into many different areas including healthcare. However, they treat healthcare services also as yet another business activity with no consideration for the humanitarian aspect involved. Every opportunity is made use of to make a profit, exploiting misery.
It should be noted that healthcare is perhaps the only industry where the salesman (hospital or the doctor) decides what the customer (patient) should buy. Thus, there is a heavy moral responsibility on those involved, from doctors to other service providers, to see that those who seek their services are not exploited. The companies do not seem to be worried about or ashamed in declaring huge profits annually and please the shareholders with fat returns. Well we cannot change human nature.
I know a friend of mine who has invested in a hospital chain. He gets substantial discounts on the services provided by the company for himself and his family. Every year he gets a hefty dividend from his investment. Feeling guilty about how that money was made perhaps unethically he spends the proceeds only for meritorious activity.
How the public servants rose to the occasion in the face of unprecedented challenges due to the COVID pandemic shows the innate goodness of man. Their integrity, honesty guided by strong moral principles by many, especially in the state health services, is worthy of admiration.
COVID is a disease hitherto unknown to mankind and continues to plague the whole world. Although the fact that it spreads by inhaling the virus was evident from the very outset, the ways of its prevention apart from hygienic measures, wearing masks and physical distancing was not known. As it took about a year to produce an effective vaccine and make it available to all, those who cared for the sick in the hospitals and the community took much risk in exposing themselves to the infection. Protective personal equipment (PPE) was in short supply at the beginning.
As hospitals were getting overcrowded, the doctors, nurses and all categories of health staff at times did 24-hour continuous shifts. Hardly any deaths occurred due to lack of commitment of the staff. Inadequate ICU facilities were quickly corrected often by the staff themselves with the hospital directors and other administrative staff playing a leading role with the help of the health department as well as personally garnering the support of voluntary organisations, private sector and individuals. The public health service, including the Public Health Inspectors (PHI) did a yeoman service in attending to the needs of the people at home, often using a bicycle or a motorbike as the only form of transport to reach them. The ambulance services kept running though there was a high risk of the staff getting the infection from the patients within the confines of a small space inside the vehicle. All this was done with lack of basic facilities, like personal transport or extra remuneration. While the authorities were preaching to avoid congestion, keeping a safe physical distance, the healthcare workers were provided only with overcrowded public transport with no precautions to travel to their place of work.
When caring for COVID patients with only mild illness at their own homes was introduced, the Sri Lanka Medical Association, SLMA, rose to the occasion providing free advisory service on line called the SLMA 247 service. Hundreds of volunteer doctors from all sectors working round the clock answered nearly a 65,000 such calls over a five month period, amounting to nearly 450 calls per day. The numbers thus served was much more as each call often represented several affected individuals in the same household. General medical advice, simple drug prescriptions and words of reassurance were given. This was the only medical consultation service available to those large numbers quarantined at home. The Suvaseriya ambulance service cooperated with the SLMA to provide a quick and easy way of transferring patients identified as needing further care in a hospital.
The teachers continued to serve the children locked up at home online. They did so at their own expense getting necessary computers and other equipment and buying data. There was no provision of these or planning for such by the government. This unfortunately could serve only a limited number of students due to lack of resources. It is saddening to note that even now the authorities do not seem to be planning a way of providing the infrastructure to meet any future challenges of this nature.
The role played by the armed forces and the police, in various aspects of pandemic control should be appreciated by all.
I detailed all this to illustrate how an unprecedented health crisis, with wide ranging implications, could be managed satisfactorily with a dedicated public service rising up to the occasion, at great odds. Such was the dedication, integrity and the commitment of our public servants that Sri Lanka is credited as one of the few countries that has controlled the pandemic successfully despite its lack of resources due to the poor economic situation.
Their sense of service with no chance of personal gain is all the more creditable and noteworthy when one sees how so many individuals and groups were exploiting the misery of the people to make a personal fortune in quick time. Both here and abroad news reports have shown how people became millionaires and millionaires became billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic. How some vaccine manufacturers have made profit-making their primary objective is disgraceful.
Locally, many companies were seen to be openly profiting allegedly with the blessings of the authorities. Without resorting to usual time-consuming tender procedures, in view of the urgency of the situation, selected groups were allowed to import supplies of material. Personal protection equipment (PPE), PCR test kits, and the like thus imported were made available at exorbitant prices, probably keeping a big margin of profit. There are many allegations to say that companies and even those affiliated to the administration profited tremendously from lifesaving vaccine imports as well. How even the expatriates returning from the Middle East were compelled to pay heavily inflated prices for air travel, PCR tests and compulsory hotel quarantine at great cost with no other option is common knowledge. All the above allegations, perhaps unfounded in some instances, are the result of a lack of transparency in the dealings.
I presented all these facts to show the importance of the public sector in meeting the basic needs of the populace on a daily basis and during an emergency. With corruption rampant at all levels, with no transparency at all, and when high-ranking wrongdoers are not punished when detected, it is extremely difficult to maintain an honest service by the public servants. Such culture of corruption trickles down to the lower tiers of the public service who get punished for offences like taking bribe of a few thousands of rupees. Generally, good honourable service is not rewarded to encourage them. Thus, this initiative of the local chapter of the Transparency International and the Integrity Icon programme to name and fame those public servants who went the extra mile in the service of humanity is praiseworthy.
I perused the records of the public officials named and famed by you since 2018. They come from all sectors in society and from all walks of life, some of them not even noticed by others in the course of their duties. This year,, too, I have no doubt the awardees deserve all the recognition they are given. I am happy that they were selected solely by an eminent panel of judges this year too.
I congratulate today’s awardees and wish them many more years of exemplary service. You are a beacon of light to the public service.
Let me conclude by congratulating all those involved in this noble task of recognizing the yeoman services rendered by the public servants. This will certainly encourage them to continue with their good work as well as influencing others to do likewise. I wish the Transparency International Sri Lanka and the Integrity Icon programme every success in the future.
Decolonising education and critical thinking
By Darshi Thoradeniya
I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.
Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.
As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.
Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.
This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.
History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.
When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.
Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.
The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.
If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.
(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!
Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.
In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.
Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.
It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.
Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!
The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!
Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.
The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.
There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”
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