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The JRJ Cabinet and Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel

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It would be fair to say that JRJ had the most competent Cabinet of Ministers of modern times. As usual the new Prime Minster (he was elected PM in 1977 before he became president via a constitutional amendment a year later: ed) had been very thorough in his decision making. He first accommodated all the seniors who were Cabinet ministers in previous UNP governments. Premadasa, M.D.H. Jayawardene, Montague Jayawickreme, E.L. Senanayake, Mohamed and Hurulle were all thus accommodated.

He also brought in party seniors who had helped him like Mathew, Hameed, Festus Perera, Jayasuriya and Wijetunga. Having secured that flank he chose two technocrats Ronnie de Mel and Nissanka Wijeratne, both ex-CCS, to man key ministries – Finance for de Mel and Education for Wijeyaratne. Last, he inducted two young stars of the party, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. They too were given plum portfolios. Everybody could see the logic of the leader’s decisions and there was little of the heartburn that usually follows the selection of cabinet ministers.

Another key factor was that JRJ was clearly ‘Primus inter pares’. While he acknowledged that the victory was a combined effort, ministers knew that he was supreme, having brought the UNP to a historic and unprecedented win which would have been unthinkable under the Senanayakes. He also made it known that he would not brook any underhand maneuvering which had been a regular feature of Sri Lankan party politics.

Later on, we will see that there was some dissatisfaction among his senior colleagues – M.D.H. Jayawardana, Gamini Jayasuriya and E.L. Senanayake. JRJ showed no mercy to them in asking for their resignation from their ministerial positions when disagreements came to the surface. But both sides stuck to the rules and the transitions took place in a civilized manner with JRJ writing to them to thank them for services rendered.

While the cabinet ministers were able and willing, several of them were highly ambitious and had no doubts about their fitness to succeed the Old Man who in his own words had “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” at the ripe age of 72. He was fighting fit and unfailingly followed every morning, a rigorous exercise regime tailored for the Canadian Air Force, but that did not prevent several of his Ministers nursing ambitions of succeeding him one day.

Their hopes were raised even before the 1977 election when JRJ, with no warning, held a straw poll to form a 10-man committee to manage the election campaign. Premadasa came first by a small margin. The surprise was Gamini Dissanayake’s performance coming a strong second, thus fueling his already vaulting ambition. Ronnie de Mel and Lalith Athulathmudali also made it to the group. It sent a clear signal to Premadasa and the party seniors that they would not have a cakewalk to the top. It also created a sense of competition among the front runners which simmered right through JRJ’s two terms and blew the party apart after Premadasa donned the mantle.

While this competition helped in running an efficient administration it must be recognized that it exacerbated tensions among the front runners. JRJ gave ear to them all and while not discouraging them did not overtly back any one of them either. He was a master at giving each of them hope, while not showing his hand in any way. To complicate matters there were two others outside this ring who believed that they had JRJ’s blessings to go to the top.

One was Anandatissa de Alwis, a party grandee who managed both the political and personal entanglements of Sir John Kotelawala. He was the kingpin of the UNP youth league in the early days and had been recruited by JRJ as his Permanent Secretary in the 1965 Dudley-led administration. They were close friends and the leader’s unilateral decision to make him Speaker of the House did not please Ananda who wanted to be a Minister, preferably in charge of the old ministry of JRJ’s (State) he was Permanent Secretary. The other was Upali Wijewardene, JRJ’s cousin who had emerged as a clever and ambitious business magnate.

He wrapped himself in the mantle of a hero of the south because his mother and the source of his wealth came from a prominent family in the southern heartland. ‘This was a direct affront to Ronnie de Mel, who also was burnishing his southern credentials as the representative for Devinuwara, the abode of Vishnu – the guardian god of the South. Vishnu is believed to be the only god who did not run away when the Buddha was threatened by Mara.

Ronnie de Mel

The JRJ administration of 1977 was chiefly marked by its radical change of the country’s economic policies. By 1977 the previous administration led by Mrs. B was hated by the general public.It was an era of shortages and stagnation. The inward looking policies of the PM and her Finance Minister N.M. Perera, had failed and had created immense difficulties for the public in its wake.

So much so that a wing of the SLFP led by Felix and Anura Bandaranaike, began to publicly criticize NMs socialist policies. They drew attention to the epochal changes that were shaking up western economies and driving hard bitten communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe to extinction. The new free market economy which spelt doom for socialist economies was led by President Reagan in the US and Prime Minister Thatcher in the UK. Their USSR counterpart Gorbachev was also taking the first steps ‘along the capitalist road’ as the Chinese leaders described it.The world was entering a new economic cycle of free markets and globalisation. Who would be best to help JRJ to transform the moribund economy? The President unhesitatingly chose Ronnie de Mel. “Cometh the hour; cometh the man”.

Though the JRJ Cabinet had many clever Ministers, the crucial post of Minister of Finance was given to the best qualified person- Ronnie de Mel. In a sense this appointment was waiting for him since he entered politics late in life. The SLFP which was his first party of choice had many envious seniors who prevailed on Mrs. B not to offer him a portfolio. The SLFP was a one man or one woman show and it placed greater store on loyalty than on talent.

Ronnie was a brilliant scholar who had refused the offer of a research assignment in Cambridge or Oxford as a historian based on his examination performance. He chose the CCS and was ear-marked from the start as an outstanding public servant. He had socialist leanings and was a favourite official of Philip Gunawardena when he was Minister of Agriculture in 1956. As with many CCS colleagues of his time he married into a wealthy family. Like JRJ he was without money worries but did not show off like the new rich who were now coming into politics under the SLFP. His wife Mallika was a dynamic and capable lady who undertook the responsibility of nursing her husband’s electorate as he was not a “hail fellow well met” type of politician.

In that he shared many personality traits with JRJ who looked upon him as a very valuable colleague. Both had an abiding interest in looking after the poor and underprivileged though they did not resort to popular gimmicks. Both JRJ and Ronnie came from a strong Anglican background and had an intellectual approach to Buddhism which did not view popular Buddhism and ritual with favour. Even when Ronnie was a fierce critic of the UNP, JRJ decided to woo Ronnie and playing on Mrs. B’s inability to accommodate him, slowly won him over to his side.

Ronnie was so important to the President that when he lost the Devinuwara seat in 1983 when JR sought re-election and the Referendum that followed, he was brought in on the national list of the UNP. Ronnie was so well accommodated in the UNP that he also brought along his friend and CCS colleague Nissanka Wijeryaatne, who was smarting under Mrs. B’s rejection of him for daring to contest her uncle Paranagama for the post of Diyawadana Nilame and beating him. Nissanka contested the Dedigama seat and became the Minister of Education. The luring of this duo of talented SLFPers was a feather in JRJ’s cap and presaged the trouble that was in store for Mrs. B in the 1977 election.

The opening of the economy in 1977, under the directions of JRJ, was implemented by Ronnie. It was a ‘tour de force’ which showed great skill and intelligence. De Silva and Wriggins in their biography of JRJ summarize the reforms envisaged in Ronnie’s first budget of 1977. “He asserted that the principal objective of the Budget was the establishment of a free economy after more than 20 years of controls and restrictions which had hampered economic growth….The budget marked a fundamental shift in Sri Lanka’s monetary and fiscal perspectives, through liberalized economic policies which emphasized great reliance on the market mechanism, liberalization of trade and payments and a large increase in external finance.

Most direct controls on prices, imports and external payments were dismantled, government operations in processing and distribution of basic commodities were reduced if not removed, and attractive incentives were provided to producers. There was also the unification of the exchange rate at a depreciated level and the introduction of a flexible exchange rate policy.” [P335] The rupee exchange rate was brought to its market value. All governments before that had artificially kept the rupee below its real value thereby distorting the country’s economy. It led to a black economy and the energies of the Government was diverted to catching currency racketeers as in Felix’s time. The next step was to deal with subsidies, particularly the rice subsidy – a major factor in electoral politics. Under the JRJ regime the subsidy for rice was restricted to those who earned under 300 rupees a month.

In order to cushion this poor segment from rising food prices it was decided to give a cash allowance in lieu of the rice ration. We in the Ministry of Information under Anandatissa put our heads together to fashion an Information strategy to popularize the cash grant. Together with Irvin Weerakkody of Phoenix Advertising we created a ‘Salli Potha’ or cash book as an alternative to the ‘Ration book’. The poor citizen could use the cash coupon to buy commodities of his choice subject to the ceiling imposed on the grant. This became so popular that the opposition which was still licking its wounds could not respond. Later they printed fake rice ration books to show that they too provided relief in their time. This was clearly illegal and the “fake ration book” trial dragged on in the courts for a long time.

By that time Ossie Abeygunasekere, the main accused in the case, had crossed over to the Premadasa camp and the matter was hushed up. Another prong of the Government strategy was to create a welcoming approach to foreign investment. The Board of Investment (originally called the ‘Greater Colombo Economic Commission’) was set up under Upali Wijewardene and a special investment zone was established in Katunayake.

At the same time the modernization of the Colombo Port with Japanese aid and the Mahaweli scheme with multiple foreign assistance was launched. With so many of the projects off the ground it was Ronnie who kept a tight leash on the funding with JRJ’s support. This financial control was not to the liking particularly of the PM Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali but they had no option but to accept the overseeing functions of the Finance Ministry.

There were also turf wars regarding funding for the accelerated Mahaweli project. But JRJ backed Gamin Dissanayake’s efforts to seek funding and he and Ronnie worked together fairly cordially. Ronnie established the “Aid Sri Lanka Club” of donors under the umbrella of the World Bank. This donors’ meeting was held annually in the World Bank and OECD Office in Paris. A well prepared ‘laundry list’ of projects approved by the Finance Ministry were discussed with high level representatives of the donor countries as well as representatives of multilateral institutions.

Once agreement was reached on funding it was included in the national budget for the following year which was presented to Parliament. This meeting also reviewed progress of the foreign funded projects then underway. All in all, these arrangements which were coordinated by Ronnie smoothed the way for a rapid take off and was later copied by many developing countries at the urging of the World Bank.

Ronnie depended very much on his civil service colleagues like Chandi Chanmugam, J.V. Fonseka, Chandra Fonseka, Gaya Kumaratunga and Akiel Mohammed who formed the bedrock of the divisions of the Finance Ministry. He also reached out to the Central Bank and co-opted officials from there – which had become the practice by that time. Illangaratne as acting Finance Minister of the 1970 cabinet had earlier inducted the `Kandyan twins’ – Kelegama and Karandawela, from the Central Bank and the practice has persisted with all subsequent Finance Ministers.

In addition the President used the services of Raju Coomaraswamy who had retired from the UN and returned to Sri Lanka, as his special envoy. When relations with the World Bank deteriorated to such an extent that JRJ wanted to close down its Colombo Office it was Raju who urged caution and got the Bank to support the Mahaweli project. JR had a special affection for Raju as he was part of his team when he was Minister of Finance in the DS Cabinet. He was thinking of fielding Raju as a candidate for a seat in the North and a Cabinet assignment, when the latter died of a sudden heart attack.

Raju’s son – the popular and capable Indrajit was seconded from the Central Bank to be Ronnie’s assistant and dogsbody. It must be mentioned here that subsequent Ministers of Finance, particularly CBK did not handle the ‘Aid Club’ very well. Her trips to Paris were not so productive. In fact she took a number of her ministers along with her. They were clueless about the purpose of the meeting and concentrated on the social events including a farewell party at the Crillon.I can reveal that it was a misunderstanding between CBK and S.B. Dissanayake whom she had taken along to Paris, that began the rupture that led to SB’s defection and the fall of her Cabinet in 2001.

Right along Ronnie had a special concern for the underprivileged. He served for a long time as a senior official in Philip Gunawardena’s ministry and was held in high regard by Philip. Ronnie, then in the prime of his life, naturally harbored ambitions of advancement. Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Upali were suspicious of his motives as the latter two hankered to be Minister of Finance. This led to much tension in the Cabinet which sometimes flared out as criticisms of the Finance Ministry.

But JRJ, who had been a Finance Minister himself, backed Ronnie. Much later at the tail end of his career JRJ was disappointed when Ronnie offered him only lukewarm support for the Indo-Lanka agreement and remained in his Geekiyanakanda estate, not even returning the President’s telephone calls. I had a close relationship with Ronnie and facilitated his rapprochement with President Wijetunga in 1993.Later I played ‘broker’ in getting him into CBK’s Cabinet in 2000. CBK always had a good rapport with him and Ronnie returned as a senior Cabinet Minister for a short duration which I shall describe in volume three of my autobiography.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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