Neutral Sirisena works out retirement package; questions over legality of some provisions CBK charges SLFP has been handed over to conspirators; Moves to revive party and subtle hint to support Sajith Five major Tamil parties put forward 13 tough demands; but dilemma over support for a candidate   President Maithripala Sirisena, who vowed to remain [...]


Sajith, Gota campaigns get going, but internal issues persist


  • Neutral Sirisena works out retirement package; questions over legality of some provisions
  • CBK charges SLFP has been handed over to conspirators; Moves to revive party and subtle hint to support Sajith
  • Five major Tamil parties put forward 13 tough demands; but dilemma over support for a candidate


President Maithripala Sirisena, who vowed to remain “neutral” at the November 16 presidential election and wrapped up an attractive “severance package” for himself this week, leaves tonight for Japan.

He and his wife Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari will attend the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito. He is succeeding his father Akhito, who became the first monarch to abdicate in two centuries. On Tuesday (October 22), a national holiday in Japan, Naruhito will wear a traditional robe and headdress for the centuries old ceremony at the Hall of Pines in the Imperial Palace. The President and his wife will be in the company of Britain’s Prince Charles, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed-bin-Salman and many other world dignitaries. At least for four days, the political woes in Sri Lanka will not bother him.

The Sirisenas will take part in a state banquet hosted by Emperor Naruhito on Tuesday and another banquet hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the next day (Wednesday). They will return to Colombo on Thursday. Since his assumption of office in January 2015, this is the first time he is travelling without the media and with only officials from the Presidential Secretariat and the personal security detail.

President Sirisena, whose term of office comes to an end in the next 27 days, secured a “severance package” of sorts for serving as President of Sri Lanka for little over four and half years. There was some eyebrows raised at Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting when Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera tabled a memorandum which contained a “package of benefits” for President Sirisena. The fuller details remain a secret. Firstly, this memorandum had not been circulated to ministers in advance. Secondly, no copy was given to them at the meeting. Yet, the proposals were approved.

Leaks to the media have spoken of the continued use of the official residence at Mahagamsekera Mawatha (former Paget Road), an office and staff, vehicles and security from the Police Special Task Force (STF). The residence has been built merging two houses and has a conference room and sitting areas. Its refurbishment cost Rs 180 million. The Cabinet decision last Tuesday is not a fait accompli and could be changed by another Cabinet. Other than that, the decision to assign security from the Police STF raises issues. Of course, there is no question that President Sirisena should have personal security. However, from which arm of the security establishment this personal security should be provided does not lay with the Cabinet. Not even if they have seen a threat assessment and the level of danger. It is a matter for the Ministry of Defence. Ideally, it is the Ministry which would have to make a threat assessment and then determine the kind of protection. Of course, for now, President Sirisena is the Defence Minister.

Sri Lanka is perhaps one of the few countries where personal security is arbitrarily assigned without a threat assessment. The threat level is also not determined — whether it is grave or less serious. To most politicians, a security contingent has become a prestige symbol as they travel through towns and villages disrupting traffic. They are used as a tool for political purposes. In neighbouring India, for example, threat levels are assessed independently and are categorised at different levels. There is no role for politicians in the process.

Supreme Court order on perks of retired presidents

The latest Cabinet decision is the result of a new nexus. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera is a staunch backer of New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa. It was his side, together with sections of the family, that prompted Sirisena to remain “neutral” at the presidential election. Hence, it was easy for Sirisena to have Samaraweera submit that memorandum.

In doing so, the Finance Minister appears to have lost sight of a Supreme Court order on May 3, 2007. It came over a controversy after the Cabinet had then decided on a “package” for the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It had included half an acre of land near the Parliamentary complex in Kotte where a partly built presidential palace lay. Amidst controversy she later retuned the land. Giving a ruling on a fundamental rights application, the SC laid down the entitlements to a retiring President in terms of the Endowment Act No 4 of 1986.

Former Presidents, the Court said, would be entitled to the following facilities and allowances:

a.   A suitable house for residential purposes (without the payment of rent). In the event a house is not provided an allowance equivalent to one third of the salary entitled to a former President.

b.   A monthly secretarial allowance equivalent to the payment made to a President’s Private Secretary.

c.   Official transportation and transportation facilities equivalent to a cabinet minister;

1.   Official vehicles 02

2.   Security backup vehicles 01

3.   Drivers 03 (Inclusive of the Driver provided for the security backup vehicle)

4.   Monthly Fuel allowance;

I.    For the two official vehicles if the two vehicles are Diesel vehicles — Rs. 20,000. If the two vehicles are petrol vehicles Rs. 50,000

II Diesel for security backup Rs. 20,000.

According to the Supreme Court order, a former President will not be entitled to retain staff and the office provided in addition to these facilities. Though the SC has not, quite understandably, laid down the strength of persons who should give personal protection, ruling that there should be only one backup vehicle means the number operational would be five or six at the most sans the driver.

Crisis within the SLFP

As he emplanes tonight for Tokyo, President Sirisena is leaving behind a new crisis for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.  Since he chose to stay “neutral,” he has temporarily appointed Prof. Rohana Luxman Piyadasa, as acting Chairman of the party. The party’s official position, however, to support the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) drew some strong reaction from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Her father, the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, broke away from the United National Party (UNP) and formed the SLFP 68 years ago, though Kumaratunga herself broke away once from the SLFP.

In a message to “SLFP members and friends,” she declared that a party which achieved victory in 2015 presidential election by obtaining 6.2 million votes “has now been handed over to conspirators for personal gains by the leader who achieved that victory.” In an obvious allusion to President Sirisena, the onetime SLFP leader also said, “We should not allow conspirators to destroy the party” for “personal gains.” The date was a reference to the day a decision was conveyed to the SLPP that the SLFP would back it. She noted that the date was the tenth death anniversary of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike. “Therefore, I appeal to you to act intelligently at the upcoming presidential election,” she said. Through those remarks there is a veiled suggestion not to vote for the SLPP-led SLPA candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Does this mean a subtle hint to support Sajith Premadasa?

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera took the opportunity to respond. He noted that “I am extremely saddened by the WhatsApp message that was addressed to me personally, which later appeared on a number of social media platforms.” He added: “Therefore, madam, in light of the policy framework and the founding principles of the SLFP, we are not in a position to support the UNP. The policies and framework of the UNP are contrary to our party policy. We cannot support a party that promotes the views and policies that are based on neo-liberalism. In addition, the present downfall of the SLFP was due to a coalition arrangement with the UNP. As a result, today our party, which was once the number one force in the country, has been downgraded to the third in a span of five years. The prerequisite for our support to SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was based on policy and value compatibility….”.

A section of the SLFP backed by Kumaratunga is now poised to take control of the party though it will become a difficult task. SLFPers who joined the SLPP earlier have taken to the habit of hooting and jeering when SLFPers albeit UPFA members appear on the SLPP election platforms. The first to be jeered was Duminda Dissanayake, a onetime General Secretary of the SLFP. That was at the first rally of candidate Rajapaksa in Anuradhapura since he handed in his nomination. It is well known that Dissanayake was a strong critic of the SLPP and the Rajapaksas in particular. Dissanayake looked terribly embarrassed at the Anuradhapura rally and Gotabaya Rajapaksa tried to pacify him to some extent by visiting his house. Other instances of hooting and jeering were when UPFA speakers addressed SLPP meetings. In one incident in Ehaliyagoda, UPFA parliamentarian John Seneviratne  was hooted and jeered. At a meeting in Galgamuwa on October 14, MPs Tharanath Basnayake and T.B. Ekanayake were also hooted and jeered.

In the light of this, at least four SLFP members wanted to return to the party again. They conveyed this during a meeting with President Sirisena. However, some of the party seniors are strongly opposed to the move saying they had defied the party. The four are Dilan Perera, S.B. Dissanayake, John Seneviratne and Chandima Weerakkody.

Obviously the foursomes know that they would not be considered for top positions if Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes President. This is because of priority being given to those who have been there from the beginning. Should there be a victory; the present thinking of the SLPP is to go for parliamentary elections in May, just after the national holidays.

Though he is no longer the SLFP leader, these incidents bothered President Sirisena. He telephoned SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa, and urged that some steps be taken to prevent this. He had received complaints from his MPs. Basil Rajapaksa acted on Sirisena’s complaint promptly. Organisers of meetings were told to advise their helpers and supporters to ensure there was no hooting or jeering of SLFPers on their stage. Basil Rajapaksa told them that the SLFPers were addressing their SLPP meetings only to ensure their candidate won.

Issues facing NDF

There were also issues for the UNP-led New Democratic Front (NDF) as its campaign got under way. One of the issues surfaced at the crowded first rally of Premadasa at the Galle Face Green. An influential section tried to prevent Rishad Bathiudeen, leader of the Sri Lanka People’s Congress, from getting on to the stage. They were in the know that Bathiudeen had tried to make a foray into the SLPP but failed in view of strong opposition in the Rajapaksa led camp. Whether this was the only reason or there were others is not known. Bathiudeen has claimed that he had been found to be not involved in any way in the April 21 Easter Sunday massacres, or with the suspects linked to it. He has also claimed that the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that probed the events had not made an indictment on him. Hence, he argued whether the Premadasa faction still disbelieved them. A Premadasa loyalist strongly defended their position saying; “we are worried about votes”, and confessed this was why Bathiudeen had not been allowed a speak at the Galle Face rally. However, they could not stop him from getting on the stage. When one felt that under normal circumstances, Bathiudeen’s vote bank was being wooed by all parties concerned, it seemed that he was being considered a political leper.

As a result of that refusal, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, and Democratic People’s Front leader Mano Ganesan turned down requests to speak.  They were showing solidarity with Bathiudeen. Consequently no Muslim and Tamil leaders of the NDF spoke at the Galle Face rally last week. All speakers were from the UNP. This is now being exploited by the SLPP. Western Province Governor A.J.M. Muzammil, speaking at a rally attended by Muslims in Teldeniya in support of candidate Rajapaksa, declared “minorities have no place in the UNP now.” He was a former UNP Mayor for Colombo. During that period he had to work with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was beautifying Colombo city as Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development. However, no political organisation representing the Muslim community has reacted to this incident so far.

Days ago, Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had to intervene to settle a fierce verbal duel and near fisticuffs between party chairman Kabir Hashim and Rishad Bathiudeen. It came during a meeting of UNP district organisers. Hashim proposed that Ali Zahir Mowlana (SLMC) head the election campaign in the East. It angered Bathiudeen who declared that Hashim was trying to “undermine” him. He was not happy. Mowlana was not from his own party. Later, a compromise was reached. It would be Ameer Ali, a former SLMC member now in Bathiudeen’s Congress who would head the NDF campaign in the East.

There were other issues, too. Minister Rajitha Senaratne claimed at an election meeting in Beruwala that he had been named the head of Premadasa’s election campaign. Senaratne is all too well known for making inaccurate or contradictory remarks when he served as spokesperson for the Cabinet. Numerous instances have been pointed out in the media. However, if his assertion is correct this time, then he replaces Malik Samarawickrema who has earlier been named as the Campaign Manager. He also serves in a Media Committee chaired by Minister Samaraweera. The once vociferous loyalists of Premadasa were silent and declined comment on whether there has been a change of guard. They were equally silent when asked whether some front liners had now chosen to take a back seat after becoming distant from Premadasa with the arrival of newcomers.

Premadasa’s propaganda campaign is now being handled by the media staff of Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. It is they who advise the media of dates, time and venues of meetings addressed by the NDF candidate and are carrying out promotional activity. They distribute photographs. The main centre of activity for Premadasa is an office located in Vauxhall Street. Matters there are being run by Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, a former Media Minister. He is being assisted by Tissa Attanayake, a former UNP General Secretary who left the party and joined the Rajapaksa camp on the eve of the 2015 Presidential election. A parallel office has been opened by Minister Ravi Karunanayake, once an archenemy of Premadasa, at the UNP headquarters from where another campaign is being directed. Yet, not many from the Vauxhall Street office visit this Sri Kotha campaign office in Kotte. That only highlights the underlying tensions and perhaps the deep divisions still continuing within the UNP.

SLPA drawbacks

In terms of the campaign, there were also some drawbacks in the SLPP-led Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA). An oft repeated criticism had been the SLPP leader and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa accompanying his alliance candidate to different events. There was also criticism that the candidate had not held any news conference on his own. At the alliance’s main rally in Anuradhapura, in a bid to show that candidate Rajapaksa was on his own, brother Mahinda arrived there separately. An opposition barb began gaining momentum. It said “those days journalists were afraid of Gotabaya; nowadays Gotabaya is afraid of journalists”. In what appeared to counter such a view gathering momentum, this week, both were present at a televised news conference at Shangri La hotel. During the event, journalists fired a volley of questions. Most were hostile but that is by no means to say the media were partisan. They have been reminded by the NDF backers of various gory incidents of the past and were bent on getting answers for a good copy.

The SLPP should have expected that and planned for it. Alas, when many a question was posed to Gotabaya, he looked at brother Mahinda to give the answers, or Mahinda took it upon himself to answer. This gave further weightage to those who criticised the SLPP. Candidate Gotabaya is not the only one to face such a situation. There are many around the world who take to politics and undergo difficult situations. Onetime US President Ronald Regan, a film actor earlier, had to be given cue cards when he telephoned world leaders. Would it not have been better for candidate Rajapaksa to have first read out a brief statement incorporating the essence of what he wanted to say?

A designated person could have been assigned to conduct the news conference within a specific time limit to ensure damage control. This practice is followed in many countries. Such a person could also ensure a fair opportunity for those present to raise questions without one or two dominating it. Unfortunately, the gross ignorance of these aspects leads to more damage than dividends. Moreover, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a new entrant to politics and could not be expected to have all the answers at his fingertips. Nor will he be taking decisions on his own if he becomes President. It is no secret that brother Mahinda will play a very big role in that. This mistake with the media has happened during the Rajapaksa administration in the past and it is happening now. The poor media handling, leave alone knowing how they operate, is the result of inexperienced persons being entrusted with communication tasks. Thereafter, when the reporting is mostly hostile, the leaders scream and attribute motives for the media reports and wage a war. The sooner the SLPP leadership gets away from this mindset, the better for them and their alliance. This was a hallmark during their previous administration.

Candidate Rajapaksa, by being inaccessible, has also denied to himself the exposures he will receive in one-on-one interviews with the major media outlets though the “dangers” are less than during a news conference. Nor has the SLPA leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, deemed it necessary to rectify the situation both on behalf of the candidate as well as the alliance by explaining their views individually. He is easily the most popular politician in Sri Lanka though the polls campaign has weighed heavily on him. He appears somewhat worn out because of the travel and the time taken by his hectic schedule. Despite a baritone voice he has developed, he prods on.

Other than that, the SLPA has made significant inroads this week. On Friday, it signed an MoU with the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader Arumugam Thondaman. Signing on behalf of the SLPP was its chairman, Prof. G.L. Peiris. The CWC still commands considerable support in the plantation sector in the hill country due to its then leader Sauyamoorthy Thondaman. The signing ceremony, which both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa attended took place at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). The SLPA said that, when in power, it would ensure a pay hike to plantation workers. During talks with the SLPP leadership, Thondaman pointed out that such an increase had been repeatedly stalled by a government minister.

The MoU with the SLPA is the fourth among Tamil and Muslim parties. The other MoUs are with: The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devananda, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna and the National Congress led by A.L.M. Athaullah. The SLPP also launched what it called a “Digital Strategy and Tools” with the introduction of apps. See montage on this page.

The SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera yesterday signed the second MoU with candidate Rajapaksa. The event took place at the NADA auditorium adjoining the Bloomfield Cricket Club.

At the time of the signing of the SLPP–CWC MoU, another event was taking place in a separate room at the SLFI. It was a news conference by Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who announced that he would now support candidate Rajapaksa. The attorney, who was once with the SLFP before joining the UNP and a Justice Minister, then again shifted sides earlier from being a loyalist to Premier Wickremesinghe to becoming a close advisor to President Sirisena. Together with a former Chief Justice, he was reported to have advised President Sirisena to remove Premier Wickremesinghe and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa in October last year. The Supreme Court held that the move was unconstitutional.

Rajapakshe told the news conference that then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and then Minister D.M. Swaminathan, were responsible for co-sponsoring the US backed resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. This resolution, among other matters, called for a probe on troops on allegations of committing war crime.  Rajapakshe said neither President Sirisena nor the Cabinet of Ministers had given approval for the move. He also claimed that the US had not even asked for the co-sponsorship. Yet, Rajapakshe did not raise issue at the Cabinet over this move and continued to serve as a Minister.

Once an unofficial advisor to Premier Wickremesinghe, Rajapakshe sounded a different note now. He charged that the Yahapalana government had violated the Constitution within two weeks of coming to power. Noting that the Central Bank cannot be designated to anyone under the Central Bank Act, he charged Wickremesinghe forced President Sirisena to use presidential powers to bring the Bank under his purview. There was many a finger pointing now by Rajapakshe though he dissected provisions in the law as UNP Justice Minister to advice Wickremesinghe to the contrary. His close friendship with the controversial Avant Garde head who is now in remand custody became public knowledge. Not surprising. He has no popular support base nor a political party but had to justify his jumping fences by blaming others.

7 basic demands from the North

With just 27 days to go for the presidential poll, a strikingly important development in the North will set a poser to the two main candidates — Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa. In the north, five different parties have grouped themselves together and placed a set of 13 demands couched in seven ‘basic demands’. They say they will offer their support only if their demands are met, some of them within three months. They want to hold talks with the duo as well as Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake over these demands. The five parties are the Tamil National Alliance, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the People’s Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran’s Tamil People’s Front (TPF).

Earlier, efforts were made by a private group to get these parties together. When it failed, a body styling itself as “Jaffna University Students” was responsible for getting the five parties together. They persuaded them to agree on the 13-point demands.

If the leaders do not make a commitment, the five parties are of the view that the people should be allowed to vote according to their conscience. Having declared that, the TNA has had second thoughts. The successful candidate at the presidential election, it is pointed out, could take up the position that the votes from the North came to them without any form of backing from political parties there. Hence, they argue, there should be some ‘safeguard’ to overcome this situation.

The 13 demands have been widely publicised, particularly in the Tamil media outlets. In the light of their significance in the context of the November 16 presidential election, they are as follows:

1.  A solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue must be found by setting up a new federal constitution rejecting the heretofore unitary constitution accepting the nationhood of the Sri Lankan Tamils and recognizing its sovereignty and accepting that Tamils under the provisions of International Law are entitled to the right of self-determination.

2.  Full-fledged independent impartial International mechanisms through the International Criminal Court/International Arbitration Tribunal must be set up to inquire into the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity and Genocide committed during the final stages of the war.

3.  The Prevention of Terrorism Act must be withdrawn.

4.  (Consequently) All Tamil political prisoners must be freed unconditionally.

5.  Justice must be meted out for those affected by the enforced disappearance of persons through appropriate international mechanisms.

6.  The Governmental Forces occupying private and state lands/buildings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which were occupied by Tamils before the war must be withdrawn, the lands released and resettlement process must be immediately set in motion.

7.  Sinhalisation, Buddhistisation and Sinhala Colonisation taking place in the Northern and Eastern Provinces presently with State assistance must be stopped immediately.

8.  Since the Mahaweli Development Authority is engaged in planned Sinhala Colonisation in the Northern Province under the pretext of redirecting the Mahaweli River to the North, the jurisdiction of the said Authority in the Northern Province must forthwith be terminated. Also the planned Sinhala Colonisation taking place in the Eastern Province under the Mahaweli Development Scheme must also be terminated.

9.  The Moragaskande Irrigation Scheme recently introduced is indulging in planned Sinhala Colonisation in the Vanni Region. All such Sinhala Colonisation must forthwith be terminated.

10.           The expropriation of lands and areas of religious worship by Government Departments including the Archaeology Department, the Wild Life Department, and the Forests Department must forthwith be stopped. Those lands and places of worship already expropriated through these Departments must be freed from the effect of the Gazette Notifications which so expropriated them.

11.           Those affected in the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the War, wanting to economically improve themselves or youth wanting to enhance their job opportunities receiving direct investments from our Diaspora and elsewhere must have all legal obstacles faced removed so that handling lands and finances here would be easy and quick.

12.           Priority must be given to those belonging to the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Governmental and Private Sector job opportunities in the said two Provinces.

13.           An independent mechanism must be set up under the supervision of Elected Representatives of the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to handle all finances for Development in the said two Provinces, after proclaiming the Northern and Eastern Provinces as areas affected by the War.

It is abundantly clear that none of the candidates will be able to accept all the 13 demands without provoking a backlash from the south. Demands for a Tamil nationhood or the withdrawal of troops from the north are demands that would be anathema to any political party. TNA parliamentarian Abraham Sumanthiran has been talking to Sajith Premadasa whilst SLPA leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has had talks with Selvan Adaikalanathan and Dharmalingam Siddharthan. They are yet to touch on the 13 demands and how the Tamil polity will respond remains to be seen. The dilemma here is the fact that the five parties do not want to boycott the poll but have the citizens in the north exercise their franchise. On what basis? That remains the question.

However, TNA’s Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times, “The document which was signed by Tamil parties contains the Tamil position. These are not new demands, and this has been the historical position of the Tamils. People should not be misled that this is the TNA position. This is the common position of the Tamils in the North and East. We have not submitted these proposals to any party or candidate contesting the Presidential election so far. We will talk to all main candidates, but these proposals will not be the basis for the talks.” There is considerable ambiguity in his remarks. The question is why the 13 demands are not being placed, if indeed a decision was taken? Or is this part of a strategy? If as he says it is not a TNA demand, why did the party sign it?

Efforts by supporters of the National People’s Power candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake to persuade National Development Front candidate Rohan Pallewatte have not been successful. Pallewatte told the Sunday Times, “Initially there was some discussion between Anura Kumara Dissanayke and me, but it was not finalised. Therefore, I will be contesting the presidential election as people had extended their support to me during the past three years.”

Though the turnouts are rather poor, the campaign of former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake who is contesting under the National People’s Party is under way. A party spokesman said its biggest drawback is the lack of funds. Tomorrow, Gen. Senanayake will address meetings in the Badulla district.

As the polls campaigns continue, Sri Lanka will remain without a President for four days from today. Since Sirisena is staying “neutral,” he could say he has with some fairness that he has no role in the campaign. However, steering the country at the time of elections is another matter altogether. His presence would have helped in no small measure.

Surveys have been launched not only by the main candidates but also by the others. No doubt, each will speak of victory to the one for whom the survey is being done. The real winner will yet be known in 27 days.


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