Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.

A tale of two princesses

22 09 2013

A report in an Illinois newspaper explains that Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn has received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from Northern Illinois University. NIU is home to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The Center’s long history is peppered with interesting government connections during the period when the United States was most active in Southeast Asia, with one report stating that the Department of Defense and the Advanced Research Projects Agency claiming at least one NIU professors: “We had Dr. Ladd Thomas, Northern Illinois University.” Such connections may seem ancient now, but they are well remembered in DeKalb and Bangkok.

The story doesn’t explain why NIU has given this honorary doctorate. However, the DeKalb Daily Chronicle says: “She was chosen for the degree in the spring because of her humanitarian efforts and worldwide prominence as a scholar…”. PPT has been unable to establish any particular scholarship that has earned any academic reputation for the princess outside Thailand, where royal posterior polishing is required. Google Scholar lists just 4 or 5 citations and these are to opening ceremony speeches.

Her “academic” activity seems to revolve around teaching history to cadets at the  Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy where one task she performs is linking military and monarchy in its extra-constitutional tryst that began in 1957.

Former CSEAS director Clark Neher is probably closer to the mark when he is quoted as saying: “By awarding an honorary doctor to Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn, we shine a light on Her Royal Highness and the enduring relationship between her country and our institution…”. The award is about the long-standing relationship between the U.S. government and the royal family and palace.

Interestingly, Sirindhorn’s visit gets some attention in a NIU Center PDF newsletter. While only a couple of pictures are reproduced, we thought them worth reproducing here:

NIU 1It seems odd to us that there is no really academic work on display in the NIU Library. Our old eyes can’t see, for example, The King Never Smiles (ภาษาไทย), A Coup for the Rich (downloads a PDF) or Saying the Unsayable. Of course, if a university is to dole out honorary degrees to royals there must be self-censorship at work. This is all about illusion, although it is also delusion.

Meanwhile, when delusion is mentioned, PPT notes that the entertainment media has been busily “reporting” on the reality-challenged music princess Rihanna in Thailand. She is reported to have attended bizarre sex shows, caressed elephants  and then declared herself “Empress.” We are not sure if this delusional self-promotion relates to elephants or something else. Seriously, though, even music princesses should be aware that this self-proclamation is potentially dangerous in a country where “protecting the monarchy” can land an “empress” in jail for 15 years on lese majeste.

Updated: Busy day in Bangkok II: reform, rice, old kings, censorship and impunity

10 08 2013

As we noted in the first part of this post, it has been a busy few days in Bangkok, with more stories than PPT can possibly comment on, so we are now posting a second  combination of stories.

In another story that cites PPT, Asia Sentinel had a story a couple of days ago regarding the politics of amnesty. PPT is cited as an “NGO,” which is probably rather too much of a grand title for our small effort to shine a light on aspects of politics and political prisoners in Thailand. The story also seems to erroneously suggest that Thaksin Shinawatra put the 1997 constitution in place. Even so, it is true that: “Any time amnesty or constitutional reform looms, the protesters take to the streets. Pheu Thai leaders have been waiting for almost three years to attempt to push through a series of constitutional reforms…”. It would be even more accurate to notice that when the military junta’s 2007 constitution was put in place, all of the old conservatives said it could be changed by elected governments, and even made this an article of the constitution. Since then, this pledge has been shown to be a lie. In fact, then, elected governments have been waiting six years to make changes.

Also worth reading is Robert Amsterdam’s post on the Wat Pathum inquest findings. This note caught our attention:

Without truth there is no justice. And without justice there can be no real workable amnesty. Some might argue a de facto legal amnesty already exists for the extremist anti-democratic People’s Alliance for Democracy and the groups aligned with them, including Abhisit’s Democrat Party. Abhisit and his former deputy PM, Suthep Thaugsuban, have both been charged with the murder of civilian protesters in 2010, yet arrogantly strut around, even dismissing the court’s bail conditions, assured of their own impunity.

Prachatai has a post regarding censorship of books – an unofficial removal from sale – at Asia books. Of course, the books relate to the monarchy. But not the current king. These two books relate to past kings and the royalist response to the 1932 revolution. Prachatai says: “The books concern the history of the 1932 revolution and the controversial relationship between King Rama VI and his palace servants.” So why the “ban”? Asia Books withdrew the two academic titles reportedly for reasons of “political sensitivity” but declined to comment further. The book by Dr. Nattaphol Chaiching studies the “counter-revolution led by the royalists” following the 1932 revolution. Readers without Thai skills can get an idea about the book through the author’s chapter in Saying the Unsayable. The book was published by Fa Diaw Kan as part of its “Monarchy Studies Series.” The second book by Chanun Yodhong is about “Gentlemen-in-waiting”, and deals with the relationship between the gay King Vajiravudh and his palace flunkies. Prachatai states that the book “poses questions about King Rama VI and his projects such as the Boy Scouts and Vajiravudh College, a private boys-only boarding school he founded in 1910.” It is published by Matichon.

While on censorship, we feel compelled to add to the outcry about the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s continuing stupidity regarding Facebook posts and its use of the draconian Computer Crimes Act. Minister Anudith Nakornthap has lost his marbles if he thinks social media users should be charged and locked up for “sharing and clicking ‘Like’ on social media posts, since they could be deemed as damaging to the country’s security.” His view that “postings that are political in nature or meant to stir up public confusion might be in breach of the Internal Security Act and Computer Crime Act” is utter nonsense but clearly neanderthals can use the law to censor and stifle. Interestingly, the cyber-cops have declared the warning as a successful scare tactic. Update: Asked if clicking “like” is now against the law, Police Maj Gen Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division, says: “It will be if you ‘like’ a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press ‘like’, it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible.” Officials like this are appallingly dull and through their dullard actions, dangerous to Thais and their rights to free speech.

PPT also wants to draw attention to a couple of posts at Bangkok Pundit. The first is not that different from what PPT said on the story/retracted Bangkok Post story on Anand Panyarachun. The second explains what happened, and comes from a source that we also had, but since Pundit has it posted, there’s no need for us to do the same.

Finally, we want to give a few lines to a report in The Economist, which identifies the rice policy as an economic millstone for the government. We agree, but then the politics of reducing the guaranteed price saw farmers protesting just a few weeks ago. An economic millstone is becoming a political millstone, and the government’s policy wonks need to find a way out.

Lese majeste on the international agenda

20 03 2012

The lese majeste “scene” – if such a term can be used for something so horrid – has been relatively quiet of late in Thailand. Of course, that’s a view that can only be considered relative to the past few years when people were being accused and locked up with gay abandon by the royalist regimes, and then the initial raucous approach by some of the royalist toadies in the Puea Thai Party.

Despite people still suffering in prison on this vicious political charge and the mainstream media having gone quiet on lese majeste and Nitirat since the attack on Worachet Pakeerut, international attention is being maintained.

PPT mentioned the Reporters Without Borders report a couple of days ago, Bangkok Pundit has noted a review of Saying the Unsayable in the prestigious and influential Foreign Affairs, and now the LA Times and Chicago Tribune have given critical attention to lese majeste.

Our attention was caught by this latter report that rightly argues that this draconian law is a century old and essentially unchanged from when the monarchy pretty much did as it wanted, including using the state’s money for personal consumption. That law still locks up people and has them in chains, ignores human rights and punishes them incessantly.

The report notes the push for reform and the opposition from those who chant that the feudal law “is necessary to uphold the dignity of a king they portray as enlightened and selfless, transcending raucous, corruption-prone Thai politics.” Of course, this king may dislike populist politics, but he has played it just as hard as any politician.

The report cites more statistics on lese majeste:

The number of charges rose to 478 in 2010 from 33 in 2005. In 2011, the figure dropped to 85 as protests eased, according to Thailand’s Office of the Judiciary, but many critics remained outspoken about the law.

Remarkably for international reporting, this account speaks with Surachai Danwattananusorn, recently sentenced to more than 7 years in jail on this draconian charge, and still facing more charges. It is no surprise that Surachai should say that Article 112 is “an obsolete law not applicable to the modern world…”. It is pointed out that Surachai, despite a guilty plea, stated that he “denied doing anything wrong…”.


Equally interesting is the profile provided to American citizen Joe Gordon, said to be a “high-profile case involving vexing jurisdictional issues…”. That’s kind of an understatement given that Joe was found guilty for, the court says, while living in the United States, posting a Thai translation of the Yale University Press bestseller The King Never Smiles.The pathetic effort to “protect” one of the world’s most politically and economically powerful monarchy extends beyond the borders of Thailand. Joe pleaded guilty apparently thinking he’d get some mercy from the palace, but nothing has happened and he continues to be punished for an alleged crime that was a legal act in his country.

On the chances for reform, the article comments:

With an increasingly polarized electorate, an aging king, a weak government, a conservative judiciary and a divided legislature, few analysts see much chance of the law changing soon. Even Thais advocating reform … say a majority of the public probably wouldn’t support new rules.

That’s probably a reasonable assessment but misses the point that the activism associated with lese majeste would have simply been impossible a few years ago. Despite the comments of the foreign academic cited in the story, much has changed.

Surachai gets the last word, making the point that even more change is required:

it’s time for Thailand to modernize and join the ranks of constitutional monarchies that have watered down or all but eliminated their lese-majeste laws.

“We just want the law updated,” he said, dressed in a dark red prison jumpsuit, “so it is more like countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden.”

That position seems entirely reasonable.

Review of “Saying the Unsayable” on the monarchy

13 12 2010

The Bangkok Post has a review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (Nias Press, 278 pp, 795 baht ISBN 978-87-7694-072-0). It is reviewed by Chris Baker:

Half way through this book, one of the contributors asks, “Is Thailand primarily a democracy protected by a constitution that guarantees rights, or is primarily a monarchy with authoritarian structures that prevent democratisation?” Not so long ago, such a question was unimaginable. The standard formula is that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy with the King as head of state. But ever since the People’s Alliance for Democracy swathed themselves in yellow and announced “We fight for the king”, cracks have appeared in that formula. The mantra that the monarchy is “above politics” has never made much sense since monarchy is nothing if not a political institution. The claim that monarchy is beyond discussion or debate falters because the institution is too important to ignore. As Thailand’s economy has become so rapidly and drastically globalised, more and more outsiders want to understand the country’s key institutions because it matters to their business profits and personal lives. In academic writing on Thai politics, monarchy is now the prime focus of attention.

The eleven contributors to this book of essays include seven foreigners and four Thais. Two of the Thais have elected to use a nom de plume. Yet this is a careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt. The nine essays and the deft summary in the introduction present analyses of the meaning of the Thai monarchy in the present and the recent past. Although this book claims its subject is “the Thai monarchy”, in fact it’s focus is rather narrower. The words “queen”, “prince” “princess”, “crown” and “succession” do not appear in the index. Only two of the essays stray into history. This book is a study of one reign.

The first section focuses on the current image of the monarchy, and the contrast between the two essays highlights how complex the topic is. Peter Jackson argues that the monarch is seen as magical and semi-divine. The palace entourage have promoted an old idea that the monarch is a sammuti devaraja, a “virtual god-king”, not an actual god-king but capable of being imagined as one. Yet, Jackson argues, over the course of the reign the word “virtual” in this formula has tended to fade. The adulation of the monarch is one of many cults promising prosperity and security which have flourished all over the world in the context of globalisation and its insecurities. People started to worship the Fifth King as an ancestor spirit capable of granting prosperity, and the Ninth has become associated with the cult.

By contrast, Sarun Krittikarn argues that the distinguishing feature of the present reign is the accessibility and evident humanity of the royals. Rather than being cloaked in mystery and ritual, they appear every day on television doing very human things. From this inspection, “it is obvious that the family has gradually adopted middle-class values and lifestyles”. The people gaze at them constantly, and the monarch gazes back from pictures, banners, statues and banners which seem to be everywhere. He watches over his subjects constantly. “Under his gaze, we are turned into a child in need of security.” Of course, the sheer multiplication of images runs the risk that the image overwhelms the reality behind it. Moreover, Sarun suggests, while the royal image is supposed to serve as the focus of nationalist loyalty, viewing the image has rather become a form of entertainment which arouses feelings of comfort.

In the official version of history, King Prajadhipok welcomed the transition from absolutism to democracy, thus ensuring that democracy and monarchy could comfortably coexist, and earning for himself the title as “father of Thai democracy”. Two essays attack this history head-on. Nattapoll Chaiching marshals all the evidence showing that Prajadhipok fought bitterly to reverse the 1932 revolution, and that after his abdication committed royalists took up the same cause until they succeeded with Field-Marshal Sarit’s coup in 1957. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp take up the story from there, tracing the idea of “Thai-style democracy” from Sarit to the present. Since 1932, royalists had argued that the Thai people were not ready for democracy or not suited to it at all. Sarit claimed that strong leaders who responded to popular needs were a better form of “democracy” than that contrived by elections. Kukrit Pramoj imagined that there was a virtual bond between king and subjects which meant that kingship was a perfect form of representation, somehow “natural” for Thailand, and indispensable for peace and prosperity. Since then “Thai-style democracy” in which the monarch acts as a moral balance against wicked politicians has been a cornerstone of royalist thinking. Hewison and Kengkij argue that Thaksin was found so frightful because he was beginning to show that democracy could work, an elected leader could deliver prosperity to the people and be rewarded with unprecedented popularity.

The 2006 coup hangs heavily over the book. Almost every essay refers to it. David Streckfuss notes the epidemic of lese-majesty cases since the coup. He draws a comparison with the last epidemic of comparable scale – in Germany in the late nineteenth century. In one six-year period, 248 people were convicted. Yet the result was only to make more people more defiant. Eventually in 1904, the Emperor himself told the judiciary to desist, and issued pardons to those still undergoing punishment.

The last two essays focus on the sufficiency economy. Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager put the idea in the context of a worldwide enthusiasm for “etho-politics”, theories in which greater self-discipline by the individual does away with the need for such a great political superstructure. The ideal is a community which can exist without conflict. But in truth, they argue, this is always a dream. Andrew Walker adds that the image of a self-sufficient local rural economy may never have existed in Thailand and is certainly far removed from present-day realities. One large portion of the rural population does not have enough land or other assets to be sufficient, and survives by migrating away from the village in search of work. Another large portion finds that the best way to deal with the risks and insecurities of small-scale agriculture is to invest more, play the market, and diversify risks rather than retreating into a shell of sufficiency.

As the editors note in the Introduction, a monarchy like any other institution is constantly being made and remade. The immense changes over the present reign make that abundantly clear. This book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature that helps to make this institution and its complex dynamics more understandable.

New book on the monarchy

23 11 2010

Under the headline “Danish Book Critical of Thai Monarchy”, provides a brief review of the academic collection edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Saying the Unsayable:

The Thai monarchy today is usually presented as both guardian of tradition and the institution to bring modernity and progress to the Thai people. It is moreover seen as protector of the nation.

Scrutinizing that image, Danish researchers Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager reviews the fascinating history of the modern monarchy. It also analyses important cultural, historical, political, religious, and legal forces shaping the popular image of the institution.

The title on the book “Saying the Unsayable” refers to the fact that in Thailand there is severe punishment to express criticism of the royal family. Among the points discussed is that the monarchy is very different than protecting democracy – on the contrary, the law of lése majesté misused to persecute political opponents.

The book offers valuable insights into the relationships between monarchy, religion and democracy in Thailand – topics that, after the September 2006 coup d’état, gained renewed national and international interest. By addressing such contentious issues as Thai-style democracy, lése majesté legislation, religious symbolism and politics, monarchical traditions, and the royal sufficiency economy, this volume will be of interest to a broad spectrum of academics, journalists and other interested readers outside academia.

As an entirely academic work, the authors of the various chapters can expect to be free of charges of lese majeste – at least that has been the Abhisit Vejjajiva government’s claim. PPT has been told that some copies are already available in Thailand’s bookshops.

Praising the monarch’s constitutionalism

30 09 2010

A couple of days ago the Bangkok Post had a longish article on a new book – three volumes, in fact – by “[j]ournalist and biographer Vimolphun Peetathawatchai [who] has launched Ek Kasattra Tai Rattadhammanoon, or The Great Constitutional Monarch, a new look at His Majesty the King’s role as it has pertained to constitutions.”

It will be available at bookstores in early october, and will probably not be sitting next to the new works by David Streckfuss and the edited collection by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager. This is because the new book is unlikely to be a critical examination of anything controversial, despite the claims made in this story.

Bias! We hear the shouts already about our last paragraph. How can we say such a thing without even seeing the book?! Easy, really. For one thing, the crackdown on anything that is critical of the monarchy has been so complete under this Abhisit Vejjajiva regime that we seriously doubt this publication would be published if it was such an account. Second, just read the story; it seems that nationalism will over-rule any scholarly thoughts.

The report in the Post breathlessly claims that the book “touches on many hush-hush topics including how His Majesty has exercised his constitutional authority in times of political turmoil and coups.” Why on earth should that be “hush-hush”? The actions of a constitutional monarchy are meant to be legal, transparent and open to parliamentary scrutiny, not “hush-hush.”

It is also claimed that “another highlight is the book’s coverage of the death of King Rama VIII, a topic with which the author is deeply familiar after having written a book on the subject 40 years ago.” Again, nothing new is likely to be unearthed on this in a book available in censored Thailand.

Vimolphun makes her stand clear: “We have not had a book that addresses His Majesty as a constitutional monarch. Indeed, His Majesty has had a highly distinguished role in defining the role of the monarchy under constitutions…”.

Then there is the nationalist flag flying: “Surprisingly, we let foreign critics lead our opinion and criticise His Majesty’s role under the constitution even though we may not know whether they are properly informed about the issue. Yet some critics lacking these facts will still write a lot on the subject from their perspectives.” Heavens to Betsy! The damned foreigners have criticized the king!

Then the rags are out polishing royal hindquarters. One “critic” said: “The book makes us look at our King as a human being who has feelings … a flesh and blood human. It is a perspective we Thais hardly take towards our beloved King.” Former central banker and minor royal MR Pridiyathorn Devakula “praised the book for its valuable and rare information.” He added: “It is a must read for every Thai…”. He added: “the book made him feel proud to be Thai and have a king who cares so deeply of his subjects…. I feel assured that His Majesty understands politics and can help in solving the political crisis. If I have a chance to be reborn, I would want to be Thai again…”.

It really does sound like this is the usual hagiographical and royalist clap trap. Wouldn’t it be nice if PPT was wrong.

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