San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
History of Myanmar (Burma)
The U that forms part of the personal names of adult Burmese men roughly means Mister. Boys would have the term Maung and young men the term Ko. For adult woment the term Daw is used. Military leaders often were addressed with the term Bo (commander) as the first part of their names. Aung San is often referred to as Bogyoke Aung San with Bogyoke meaning roughly Major-General or perhaps Generalissimo. Members of a nationalist political group of the 1930s adopted as a title the name Burmese were required to use in addressing Englishmen, Thakin.
The official name of the country is the Union of Myanmar (Myanmar from the Burmese word for the martial attributes of strong and fast). It used to be the Union of Burma and even now most people outside of the country call it Burma but in actuality it is the Burman Empire, basically as it existed in the late nineteenth century when the British conquered it. That encounter was a matter of local imperialists (Burmans) clashing with a global imperialists (the British). But the area which encompasses what later was designated Burma was more of a cockpit in which various ethnic groups vied for control. The Burmans were in control at the time of the British conquest but there were times in history when other groups such as the Mons or the Tai people of the Shan State were dominant.
Aung San was the youngest of six children born to a family of some prominent heritage in central Burma. His father, U Pha, had tried to pursue a profession of an advocate (attorney) but was not inclined to be very talkative. His mother, Daw Su, through energy and resourcefulness became the major support for the family. Aung San's ancestors were scholars and his mother's uncle was executed by the British for rebellion. These traits Aung San seemed to inherit.
As a child he was so slow to start talking and said so little that people thought he might not be able to talk. He started his schooling a year late because he did not want to go to school without his mother. When he saw the interesting things that his older brothers were doing he decided on his own to start school. This self-willed aspect of his personality was a life-long trait.
He attended a monastery school which provided some modern education as well as Buddhist training. He was an excellent student, in part because of his self-discipline. At that time fluency in English was required for going on to institutions of higher education. Aung San's brothers had learned English and he decided to learn it even though it was not taught in his school.
At age thirteen he went on to a National (secular) School where his brother was a teacher. This required he live away from home. Aung San's mother was not in favor of his doing so but gave in to his determination. The National schools had a Burmese nationalist orientation and Aung San had become a fervent Burmese nationalist. At age fifteen Aung San won a scholarship through a competitive examination.
At this time Aung San began to show an interest in politics. He participated in debates and edited the school journal.
When he graduated from the National School he was accepted in Rangoon University. At that time various Burmese nationalist were organizing and fragmenting. Nationalism was the most vital issue among university students at the time. This was the early 1930's, the time of the Great Depression, and students also becoming concerned about economic ideology.
Aung San began to participate in the debates at Rangoon University. At one being conducted in English on the issue of whether Buddhist monks should participate in politics, Aung San rose to speak. He believed fervently that monks should not be involved in politics. He spoke in his imperfect English and continued even when the more English-fluent members of the audience heckled him and advised him to stick to Burmese. This took a good deal of will power on Aung San's part to finish speaking his thoughts in English. He continued his efforts to improve his English.
In 1935 he and other nationalist student organized to gain control of the hitherto apolitical Students' Union of Rangoon University. By the end of the academic year the nationalist student leaders, including Aung San, had gained election to the executive committee and political control of the Student Union. Aung San became the editor of the Student Union magazine.
An article in the magazine criticizing a university administrator published led to the expulsion of Aung San in 1936. U Nu had also been expelled. This led to the calling of a student strike at examination time. The strike was successful and the administrators had to consider the strikers' demands.
Aung San was re-admitted and rose in status. By 1938 he had become the president of both the Rangoon University Students' Union and the All Burma Students' Union. He achieved respect for his hardwork and single-minded adherence to principles despite the fact he was not an easy person to work with. He was given to moody bouts of refusing to communicate.
When Aung San finished his bachelor's degree he began work for a law degree. In 1938 he left Rangoon University to join a new political party called Dohbama Asi-ayone (We Burmese). He soon became the secretary general of the party. This group was infamous for demanding that they be addressed by the title Thakin (master), which was the title that Englishmen insisted that they be addressed by Burmese.
In 1938 there began demonstrations against the government throughout Burma. Aung San himself was severely injured when the police carried out a baton charge against a demonstration he was part of. There was also ethnic strife between Indian Muslim and Burmese. The government of Prime Minister Ba Maw fell as a result of the unrest and he was replaced as prime minister by a corrupt politician named Saw.
Aung San was first and foremost a patriotic Burmese nationalist, but he had come to see socialism as the solution to the economic problems of Burma. About 1939 he may have come to see Marxism as the answer to Burma's political problems, but he was pragmatic rather than doctrinaire.
When war broke out in Europe Aung San was instrumental in organizing a coalition which included his Dohbama Asi-ayone (Thakin) party and the political party of the former Prime Minister Ba Maw. This coalition was called The Freedom Bloc and its message was that the Burmese would support the British in their war effort only if the British would grant Burma independence after the war was over. The British authorities in 1940 responded by jailing the leaders they could find, including the former prime minister, Ba Maw. Aung San evaded capture and decided that there was no alternative for the Burmese but armed rebellion.
Aung San then sought a source of weapons for a Burmese rebellion. In 1940 he and another Thakin journeyed by ship to southern China where they tried to make contact with the Chinese communists. They were unsuccessful in making contact with the Chinese communists but a Japanese agent arranged for them to fly to Tokyo. In Tokyo the government made them a part of a plan to invade Burma to close the Burma Road, which was transporting supplies to the Nationalist forces in southwest China. A Colonel Seiji Suzuki was assigned to organize the Japanese-Burmese rebellion against the British.
Burmese communists were opposed to any agreement with the Japanese, but Aung San, pragmatist that he was, said they should accept help from any source where it was available. Aung San returned to Burma to sell the deal to his associates. In 1941 Aung San was taken to Hainan Island off the coast of China for military training. Hainan was then under Japanese control. The Burmese group undergoing training on Hainan became known as the Thirty Comrades. This group became the core of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA). In December of 1941 the BIA was launched from Thailand with Colonel Suzuki the commanding officer and Aung San the chief of staff. It was at this time that Aung San became known as Bogyoke (Major General).
The conquest of Rangoon and much of Burma was soon under Japanese control. However there was little effort on the part of the Japanese to grant Burmese real independence. Their was a token Burmese government set up but it did not last long and soon the Japanese were ruling Burma as a conquered territory.
In July of 1942 the Japanese commander of the Burmese Independence Army, Colonel Suzuki, left Burma and Aung San was made commander of the BIA reorganized and renamed as the Burma Defense Army (BDA). His rank was colonel. There were however many Japanese advisors who prevented the BDA from taking actions contrary to the interests of Japan. The Japanese Army set up a token Burmese government under the leadership of the former prime minister Ba Maw.
The rigors of the army life for Aung San and his cohorts resulted in his hospitalization for malaria and exhaustions. Aung San came under the care of a senior staff nurse, Ma Khin Kyi. He fell in love with her and convinced her to marry him. They were married in September of 1942.
The Japanese government continued the facade of sanctioning Burmese independence. In January of 1943 the head of government in Japan, General Hideki Tojo announced that soon Burma would become an independent nation. In March of 1943 Aung San was promoted to the rank of bogyoke (major general), a title he was known by for the rest of his life. He, Ba Maw and other Burmese leaders were brought to Tokyo to be decorated by Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The Burmese delegation was given a document that stated that Burma would become a sovereign nation in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere on August 1, 1943. Ba Maw was to be the head of state and Aung san the minister of war in the new government. Aung San's army, the Burma Defense Army, was renamed the Burma National Army (BNA).
Aung San had no illusions that August 1st would bring real independence for Burma. He had already started making plans for armed resistance against the Japanese. An emissary of the BNA made his way to India to tell the British army leaders that Aung San would lead the BNA in resistance to the Japanese army in Burma when the time was opportune. Meanwhile Aung San was trying to cope with factionalism within Burma. The Burmese communists were always opposed to cooperation with the Japanese who were allies of the fascist states fighting the Soviet Union. Aung San arranged a meeting and the creation of an Anti-Fascist Organization (AFO) which the communists could support and which he would be the military leader of. He also strove to discourage younger officers from initiating resistance to the Japanese on their own before he felt it was time to act.
Aung San was also at this time making agreements with the leaders of various ethnic groups. There were open clashes between the BNA and the ethnic groups. Aung San convinced the ethnic goup leaders that if they cooperated with his political movement that their interests would be respected. The ethnic groups came to trust Aung San as they would no other Burman.
At the end of March 1945 the Burmese troops began their rebellion against the Japanese occupiers. British troops had entered the country and Aung San soon met with the British general, William Slim. Aung San did not get all of the political concessions he sought from General Slim but he did gain his respect. British and Burmese forces cooperated in the defeat of Japanese forces in Burma and a joint victory parade of the British and Burmese forces was held in Rangoon in July of 1945.
In August of 1945 Aung San promoted a political expansion of the Anti-Fascist Organization to include more political elements and renamed it the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). Aung San participated in negotiations with British representatives in the Ceylon city of Kandy and culminated in an agreement for units of the Burma National Army, now renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF), to be absorbed into the British army. At that time there some of the Burmese leaders who suggested that Aung San limit his role to military matters and stay out of politics. They said he did not have the necessary social skills to be a political leader. Aung San instead withdrew from the army to devote his full attention to the political movement for Burmese independence.
The British wanted a return to the pre-war political structure for Burma for period of several years before a new constitution would be drawn up and elections held. In this arrangement the ethnic groups around the periphery of the Burman heartland would have the option of joining or not joining the new sovereign state of Burma. Aung San and the other leaders of the AFPFL wanted the AFPFL to be given political control as the representatives of the people. In January of 1946 Aung San was made president of the AFPFL by acclamation. He started organizing the former soldiers of the Burma National Army who did not accept absorption into military unit for the AFPFL. It was called the People's Volunteer Organization (PVO).
At this time other Burmese began to express their jealousy of Aung San and his popularity. They tried to have him tried for murder on the grounds that he order the trial and execustion of a village headman while he was leader of the Burma army. The British authorities equivocated between seeking to have Aung San arrested and dismissing the charge entirely.
Finally the British set up an Executive Council which ostensibly was for giving advice to the British appointed governor for Burma. Aung San was made deputy chairman of this council of eleven. Six of the council members, including Aung San, were representatives of the AFPFL. In effect this was a provisional Burmese government. All was not harmony however. Communist party members were intent upon promoting the power of their organizations. A general strike had been organized to protest some actions on the part of the British. Finally the AFPFL had to expel the communists from its membership in October of 1946.
In December of 1946 a delegation, including Aung San but also his sinister political rival Saw, journeyed to London to negotiate the formal terms of the transfer of full sovereignty to a Burmese government. An agreement was reached by the government of Clement Atlee and signed by all but two of the Burmese delegation. One was Saw who had once been prime minister before the war. The other was a member of the Thakin group of political radicals in the pre-war era. Those two went back to Burma and joined with two former prime ministers, Ba Maw and Paw Tun, to create the National Opposition Front to oppose Aung San's leadership. Aung San, on the other hand, upon his return formalized the agreements with the ethnic minority groups that they would remain aligned with the Burmese provisional government and defer any change in their status until about a decade after independence. It was a remarkable feat of political leadership on the part of Aung San.
Having negotiated successful agreements with the British and the ethnic minorities Aung San was free to campaign for the elections scheduled for April of 1947. Despite not being a notable orator Aung San became a charismatic political leader. The people responded not to his rhetoric but to his obvious sincerity and honesty. When the elections came the AFPFL received the landslide vote with only a few legislative seats going to the communists and independent candidates. The National Opposition Front of Saw, Maw and Tun boycotted the election.
As the head of the party receiving the overwhelming electoral support, the AFPFL, Aung San began to govern the Union of Burma. This name was of political significance, reflecting the role of the ethnic minorities in the country. Preparation were underway for the drafting of a new constitution. But all the hopes and promises of the new government were destroyed on July 19, 1947. While an unguarded meeting of the Executive Council was underway a group of uniformed men with submachine guns burst into the the room and gunned down seven of the members of the Council. The gunmen were traced back to the house of Saw, the former prime minister and political rival Aung San. Saw believed that with Aung San out of the picture the British would choose him to lead the new Union of Burma. Saw and his henchmen were arrested, tried and executed.
Aung San was irreplacable. Seldom in human history has a country suffered a more grievous loss. The only comparable one that comes to mind is Mexico's loss of Emiliano Zapata. Burma has suffered for decades and continues to suffer for his loss.
(To be continued.)
Upon independence in 1948 there was the awkward problem of the non-Burman sections of the country. Aung San, the paramount leader of the independence movement, formulated a reasonable approach to the problem. He promised that if the peoples of the non-Burman territories who were seeking independent statehood joined with the core Burman territories in the Union of Burma they would in ten years have the option of seceding from that union. This promise was incorporated into the Constitution. To the great sorrow of the country Aung San was assassinated* just before full independence. U Nu who took Aung San's place as national leader after independence was an extraordinary individual and an able politician but he did not have the organizational skills of Aung San.
Dr. Ba Maw, the political leader of Burma from 1937 to 1939 under the British and from 1943 to 1945 during the Japanese occupation, summed up the two men:
Aung San had common sense, more of it than any of the others. He was erratic and intolerant and hard to get along with, but he saw things as they really were, divorced himself from all this ideological nonsense, and rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
[U Nu], he was a dreamer--not a worker.
U Nu's virtues were real but they were in area of devoutness and integrity rather than organization. There will be more on this topic later.
Burma sorely needed the practical reasonableness and organizational skills of Aung San. When the ten year opportunity for some of the non-Burman territories to secede from the Union approached the military carried out a coup d'etat in 1958. There were other issues including the disorganization and ineptitude of the civilian government of U Nu and the fear of a communist takeover but maintaining control over the non-Burman territories was a major concern of the military. After that first coup in 1958 the military ran the country for two years. The military was more organized and more efficient at administration than the bureaucracy. The military under General Ne Win allowed an election in 1960 which was won by the party of U Nu. (Ne win was a name adopted by the army officer Shu Maung and means in Burmese brilliant like the sun)
In 1962 the military under General Ne Win carried out another coup d'etat and set up a police state. Apparently the military developed a taste for power in that previous 1958-60 period. Needless to say, the constitutionally guaranteed right of sucession for the non-Burman territories was not honored. Also needless to say, the military leaders being tribal in their mentality espoused socialism, an ideology more closely akin to tribalism than any other ideology.
Burmese socialism failed as miserably or more miserably than socialism elsewhere and the military was reduced to ruling by naked force. Finally the regime declared the rule to be in the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The acronym seems to naturally have the connotations of evil brutality.
When SLORC allowed an election in 1990 the party organized by the daughter of Aung San, Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. Of the 485 legislative seats the candidates of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 392. SLORC refused to turn over the government to the elected leaders and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. She has maintained her nonviolent but unbending political opposition at great personal risk.
It seems appropriate to apply to Suu Kyi specifically what G.E. Harvey in his book British Rule in Burma said about Burmese life in general; i.e.,
there is, in Burmese life, not only a beauty that delights the eye but also a dignity that makes one proud of the human race.
One knows from the quality of Suu Kyi how extraordinary were her parents.
Suu Kyi was born on June 19th, 1945. Her father was murdered one month after her second birthday and she therefore has no personal memory of him but there is such a cultural memory of him that she must have felt his presence in her life for as long as she can remember. She had two older brothers just one and two years older than her.
Suu Kyi grew up and journeyed to Oxford, England for her college education. She attended St. Hugh's College, an all women college of Oxford University, in the mid-1960's. She majored in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After pursuing that major for a period of time she decided that she wanted to change her major to Literature but she was not permitted by the university authorities to do so.
After graduation Suu Kyi went to work at the United Nations in New York. After three years she went to Bhutan to join Michael Aris, a college friend, who was to become her husband. They had been corresponding frequently while she was in New York and he was in Bhutan.
They married on New Years Day of 1972. Later they went back to London and then to Oxford in the mid-1970's where Michael began work on his doctorate. First Alexander was born, then her second son, Kim. Suu Kyi coped with usual stresses of a young couple; finances, housing and child care. She began to pursue her personal interests in literature. She had told Michael at the beginning of their marriage that there might come a time when she would be called upon to serve her people.
At the end of March 1988 Suu Kyi received a phone message in Oxford that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. Suu Kyi immediately flew to her side to care for her, first in the hospital and later at home when it was clear that no purpose was being served by keeping her at the hospital.
During the nine months that Suu Kyi was caring for her mother Myanmar was undergoing severe political turmoil. The regime of Ne Win was suppressing political discent with lethal force. General Ne Win announced that he was going to resign and this opened the possibility that the country could return to civilian political control. Ne Win did resign on July 23rd, 1988. In August Suu Kyi gave her first speech of about one thousand that she made in the election campaign. The military leaders who took over after Ne Win's resignation were counting on Burmese politics devolving into a squabbling among many political parties, as had happened in the past. They thought the anti-military government vote would be so divided that the military sponsored party would emerge as the party that would form the government in the parliament. When the military feared that would not happen a coterie of army officers loyal to Ne Win staged a coup in late September which created a government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). (The acronym SLORC sounded like some name for an evil creature from a story by J.R.R. Tolkien`.)
Suu Kyi continued to campaign for political change. In July 1989 on the anniversary of the assassination of her father she accused Ne Win of still contolling the army and SLORC. The next day she was put under house arrest and forbidden to engage in political activity and have contact with foreign media or embassies. Soon the junta government restricted visits to her by her husband and sons. This was not soft treatment. The military junta struck at the depth of her emotional existence and their torment of her has continued for over seventeen years.
(To be continued.)
(To be continued)
The record of the prehistoric movements of tribal groups in Southeastern Asia is left in the linguistic affiliations of the languages spoken throughout the area. Burmese is a member of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. This indicates that the Burmans originated in the north in the Himalayas. The branches of the Tibeto-Burman language family are shown below along with the areas in which they are now spoken.
|The Tibeto-Burman Family of Languages
|Tibet, western China
|Irrawaddy River Valley and adjacent areas
|Kachin State, Shan State, Assam in India, Yunan in China
|border area of Myanmar and South Assam and Bangladesh
|Nagaland in India, Sikkim in India, east Nepal, west Bhutan
From this one sees that the more natural alignment of the states of eastern India would have been in a federation involving the Burmans. As a result of the vagaries of empire-building they ended up as part of the empire created for the Hindi's of North India by the British, along with the Tamils and other Dravidian language-speaking peoples of South India.
The southern part of what is now Myanmar was first settled by the Mons people who came into the area from the southwest coastal area. The Mons along with the related Khmer entered the southeast Asia region from the Mekong River valley area. The Burmans first settled in the north central Irrawaddy River valley area. They were preceded in that area by the Pyu's who were culturally related to the Burman tribes.
The city of Yangon (Rangoon) developed at the site of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. This pagoda had been a purely religious site long before the town of Dagon was declared there by the Mon king in the early 1400s. The Burman king Alaungpaya conquered the Mons kingdom on the Lower Irrawaddy in 1755 and renamed the town at the site Yangon, which means end of war strife in Burmese. Rangoon is just an inaccurate transliteration of Yangon.
King Alaungpaya wanted to develop Yangon as a port to replace the port of Syriam. There may have been concern about the security of Syriam which had been captured by Portuguese mercenaries in the early 1600s.
The demographic character of Yangon changed dramatically over the years. In the late 19th century it was more cosmopolitan than Burmese in character.
|The Changing Ethnic
Composition of the Population
of Yangon (Rangoon)
It is notable that by the 1980s the ethnic proportion of Chinese in the Yangon population was greater than that of Indians.
In 1961 U Nu, then Prime Minister of the Union of Burma, conferred upon Zhou Enlai of the People's Republic of China a title specifically chosen by U Nu. U Nu wanted to honor Zhou Enlai for his role in the settlement of issues concerning the border between China and Burma. The title was:
Supreme Upholder of
the Glory of Great Love
Although this title was conferred upon another it best characterizes what U Nu saw as his role in Burma and world politics.
For someone who in later life was noted for his devout religiousness, even saintliness, U Nu did not get off to an auspicious start. During his teenage years he was an alcoholic who consorted with older alcoholics and was known by the nickname, Saturday-born Street-Arab. He was born on a Saturday and was the first child of his parents. Such children were considered in Burman culture to be quarrelsome and a trial for their parents. His parents took steps to try to thwart his astrological destiny, one of which was to give him the name Nu which in Burmese means gentle or tender.
When Maung Nu started drinking alcoholic beverages at age nine his parents must have thought he was fulfilling his destiny as a Saturday-born first child. Maung Nu resisted all attempts to reform him but at age eighteen he began experiencing profoundly moving perceptions of beauty in life and on his own he stopped drinking and became a devout Buddhist.
(To be continued)
The constitution of Burma provided for the creation of socialism. Among other things the State was declared the owner of all land. The State was given the power to nationalize any branch of the economy as long as it was done through legal procedure and with compensation to the owners. Even before independence a Ministry of National Planning was set up and a Two-Year Economic Development Plan formulated. U Nu announced at that time (1948) that he would:
nationalize monopolizing capitalist undertakings and... administer the resulting national undertakings by partnership between the state and the workers.
The Burmese government nationalized the major inland water transportation company, Irrawaddy Flotilla on June 1st, 1948. The Burmese government continued the British initiated control of the purchase and marketing of rice in Burma. In October of 1948 the Burmese legislature passed the Land Nationalization Act and U Nu asserted that collective farming was the ultimate objective of this legislation. Already, before independence, land rents were limited through the Rent Standardization Act of 1947.
The Land Nationalization Act of 1948 allowed the State to take possession of all land that was not being tilled by the owner. This was a popular step because approximately two-thirds of the rice land was owned by non-resident landlords many of whom were Indian money lenders who acquired the land through foreclosure for debts owed by Burmese farmers. The Land Nationalization Act limited the size of land holdings to 50 acres.
In addition to the Land Nationalization Act of 1948 the following legislation concerning agriculture was passed during 1948:
In 1952 U Nu promised that someday every family would own a house and an automobile and have an income $175 to $200 per month. In August of 1952 he also convened the Pyidawtha (Happy Land) Conference at which further elements of the proposed welfare state were announced. Also announced were an eight-year plan for industrial development and a five-year plan for agricultural development. The plans really were not well thought out and the government did not have the funds to implement them. Almost forty percent of the funding came from creating money. This of course led to further problems with inflation.
The Eight-Year Plan was a failure both in the sense of having failed to achieve its targets and also in that it diverted resources away from achievable goals. By the mid-1950s Burma's rice exports were still one third less than those of 1938-39. Timber exports were less than one fourth of those of the average of the period 1937 to 1941. Mineral exports were less than four percent of the average of those of that same 1937 1941 period. Eventually the Eight-Year Plan was abandoned and a Four-Year Plan formulated.
(To be continued)
The failed attempts at socialism in Burma are rather typical of the experience of underdeveloped countries in the post-World War II era. What was presented as planned economic development was little more than formulation of goals, in effect wish-lists. Often the targets specified in the plans were unattainable, but even in the case of attainable targets there was the problem that implementation of programs was sorely lacking. The leadership wanted to formulate schemes but left the implementation of those schemes in limbo.
One element of the failure is that the leadership wanted to simultaneously recover from the war, consolidate central administrative control, develop economically and, on top of these very difficult tasks, create a welfare state. As U Nu expressed it in 1952 the objective of the Burmese government was:
to exploit the immense natural wealth of the country to benefit the citizens totally and create conditions of contentment and happiness.
On top of the usual problems of an underdeveloped country Burma had the special problems associated with the fact that World War II rolled over it twice. The British destroyed the major oil wells to keep their production out of the hands of the Japanese. The major mines for tungsten, tin, lead and silver had likewise been destroyed. In capturing the country both the Japanese and the British bombed the cities and their facilities extensively.
There is always a problem of credibility for statistics provided by or based upon information provided by authoritarian regimes. This is particular the case with Myanmar under the control of the military dictatorship called
|Gross Domestic Product GDP
of Myanmar in 2000/01 Prices
(billions of kyats)
|Consumer Price Index
|Money Supply, GDP and the Income Velocity of Money
in Myanmar 2001-2006
|Money & Quasi-Money
|Exports and Imports of Myanmar, 2001 to 2006
in Current and Inflation-Adjusted Values
(millions of kyats)
(To be continued)d
For the economic histories of other countries click here.
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