Because spoken words fly away, written words remain. 'verba volant scripta manent', you said.

East Timor and West Papua : A Comparison

Zulfa Ruhama
Master of International Relations, Flinders University

Supervised Study Paper



East Timor and West Papua : A Comparison of Human Rights Campaign and Independence Struggle

When President Habibie, once a prominent member of the New Order elites, hand-picked as Soeharto’s successor many people fears reformation will be halted. Nevertheless, it was during Habibie’s presidency that substantive forms of change happened in Indonesia from authoritarian to democratic forms of government (Aspinall, 2010, p. 119). The threat of national disintegration quickly arose after Habibie in power, with separatist movements flare in East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh. Among the three of them, East Timor received the most attention with Habibie’s sudden decision to offer East Timor options of self-determination that leads to East Timor’s independence (Schwarz, 1999, p.420).

Prior in 1975, the former Portuguese colony of East Timor was forcefully subjugated and incorporated in Indonesian territory as the nation’s twenty-seventh province. The brutal abuses of human rights and systemic oppression of Indonesian government under Soeharto regime was estimated as direct or indirect causes of death for one-third of East Timor population (Dunn, 1996, p.91). However, all of those pale in comparison to how International audience has reacted to East Timor suffering, and intervened to help the province’s plight for human rights reasons. In 1999, Indonesian government finally yielded to International pressure and handed East Timor under the United Nations administration until East Timor finally achieved its full independence in 2001 (Taylor, 1999, pp.229-230).

A similar cry for justice as in East Timor also comes from West Papua in the easternmost part of Indonesia. The trajectory of occupation of West Papua by Indonesia was similar with that of East Timor, West Papua also annexed by force through the New York Agreement in 1962 that open the way to territory transfer from Dutch to Indonesian control in the 1969 Act of Free Choice (Ricklefs, 1991, p. 309; Rutherford, 2012, p.30). The Papuans begins armed resistance over Indonesian rule and prompted aggressive retaliation from Indonesian army. Jakarta declared West Papua as exclusive military zone (Daerah Operasi Militer or DOM) from 1963-2008. This is an era where a large scale of violence and human rights abuses took place (Heidbuchel, 2007, p.43). It is difficult to pinpoint how much exactly numbers of Papuans who have died as a result of Jakarta’s iron policy, with estimation ranges from thousands to hundreds of thousands (Saltford, 2003, p.184).

Habibie, however, did not offer the same option of self-determination for the Papuans, although he lifts the military exclusive controlled zone from West Papua in 1998 (Elson, 2008, p.287; Kirksey, 2012, p.72). In the post-DOM period, the number of casualties resulted from armed Papuan resistance has been relatively low. The independence struggle in West Papua started to took a decisive non-violent turn. The political activists in Papua reassess their strategy and decided to wage civil resistance in the form of human rights campaign, believing that non-violent struggle is more effective to draw attention to West Papua cause (Macleod, 2014, pp.67-69).

The rhetoric of human rights is not only powerful in delivering justice for various forms of suffering, but it is also very flexible in conveying voice and performances across International borders. Allison Brysk in her book “Speaking Rights to Power : Constructing Political Will” discuss the importance of understanding the mechanism from constructing public attention to recognition, and finally political will, by using human rights campaign as unit of analysis. Brysk features the elements of communication power that can be used to analyze the strength of human rights campaign, which are Voice, Frame, Performance, Media, Audience, and Outcome. This paper will compare and contrast different elements of human rights campaign for East Timor prior to its independence and the ongoing human rights campaign for West Papua, using Brysk’s framework. Although both are sharing similar elements, I will argue that the human rights campaign in West Papua is not as coherent than that of East Timor. 

  1. Voices of Recognition

The messenger matters in a campaign. Moral leadership importance in human rights struggle is widely recognized as significant, with charismatic leadership is seen to prosper more results in their campaign even when it did not seem possible to do. Brysk (2012, pp.55-56) asserted that some voices are especially more influential than others, as they become sole sources of recognition and mobilization of political. East Timor does not seem to have shortage of charismatic leaders or activists that act as representation of their people and appeal to the norms and values outside their repressive environment (Wise, 2004, p.168). The East Timor guerilla army leader, Jose Xanana Gusmao, is one amongst the most important symbolic figures that shaped and delivered the human rights struggle of the Timorese people to the world.

Not only Xanana became a hero of Timorese people by leading Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor Leste Independente), a small revolutionary front army fighting for an Independent East Timor, but also because his International status as a martyr of his people. In 1992, Xanana was sentenced for life imprisonment under Soeharto regime. His confinement, initially seen as a major blow for Fretilin, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Gusmao mobilize International attention and support, and his status further elevated by regular visits to his prison room made by the United Nations (UN) representatives and Nelson Mandela (Hughes, 2009, p.42). Despite numerous appeals from many foreign governments, Habibie still refused to release Gusmao and also negated Gusmao’s proposal of several years of transitional period before holding independence vote in East Timor (Schwarz, 1999, p. 422). The International press labeled him as Southeast Asia’s Nelson Mandela and Xanana truly worked the label to East Timor’s favor. Xanana even wrote a famous political pamphlet that describes the story of his first wife and her escape with her children from East Timor. Xanana depicts her wife’s forced departure during Xanana’s imprisonment similar to the struggle of Winnie Mandela, who was considered as the ‘Mother of the Nation’ of South Africa (Wise, 2004, p.160).

In West Papua, compelling voices are more difficult to find and not without checkered past. Theys Eluay suddenly became focal point of Papuan independence as he led the emergent nation of West Papua to stage the first ever Papuan Congress and then the second one in May-June 2000. He was capped as “Great Leader of the Papuan Independence Movement”, despite his ambiguous figure as an activist formerly supportive of Soeharto regime and a close friend of Indonesian top army officers (Heidhbuchel, 2007, p.93). Eluay’s also one of the tribal chief in Sentani that was chosen to participate in the Act of Free Choice and firmly voted for Indonesia’s occupation (Rutherford, 2012, p.122). He was also imprisoned by the Soeharto regime in 1998 because of his public support for independence, turning him into a martyr like Gusmao and elevates his status in the Papuan public (Kirksey, 2012, p. 68). By 2001, almost all pro-independence groups had integrated under the leadership of the new Papuan Presidium Council, headed by Theys Eluay as Presidium Council Chairman.

While the events of 1999 and 2000 in Papua amped up the momentum of the movement, Theys and his supporter struggled to make progress towards the ultimate climax of West Papua independence, or even the possibility of a referendum just like East Timor. Jakarta responded to Theys’s activity by launching a campaign of targeted assassinations and arrests that culminated in the cold-blooded assassination of Theys Eluay in 2001. Theys demise and the capture of his colleagues in the presidium have effectively ended the Papuan Spring. Activists started to gone back to work in shadows and continuing their work of politics behind closed doors, in the safe of their home and in the raucous corners of Internet, as pressure from Indonesian government intensified (Kirksey, 2012, p.124).

After They’s demise, Benny Wenda, a prominent West Papuan exiled based in the United Kingdom (UK), started to surface as his Free West Papua Campaign, established in 2004, gained International recognition. In the past, Wenda was one of the OPM commanders and the brother of Mathias Wenda, a high-ranked figure in OPM. He has been nominated two years in a row from 2013-2014 for Nobel Peace Prize by his chain of supporters from Vanuatu, New Zealand, and the UK (Oslotimes, 2015). Wenda also appointed as spokesperson for the recently formed United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). ULMWP is the organization that was established as a coordinating body for pro-independence groups in West Papua and abroad to lead the campaign for Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) membership (Pacific Policy, 2014). Although it is easy to categorize Wenda, as an exiled independence activist campaigning abroad, into the stereotype that the independence struggle in Papua is foreign led and anti Indonesian (Pelcher, 2012).

The situation of ‘who speaks for whom’ is still unclear with regard to West Papua independence movement. Chesterfield of West Papua Media stresses that for years many people have claimed leadership of the West Papua movement and asserts supremacy over the others (cited in Zaitchik, 2015, p.64). According MacLeod (2014, p.51), given West Papua’s cultural diversity, it is not surprising that the independence movement is made up of diverse array of groups with allegiances coalescing around personality, place, organizational politics, or cultural connections. The OPM, for instance, after existing as the biggest umbrella group of independence for decades in Papua, still characterized by divisiveness and intense differences (Singh; 2008, p.150). Its membership is also very loosely defined (Kirksey, 2012, p.181).

The example of how divide was the voices of recognition in Papua can be examined from Kirksley (2012, p.204-205) description when finally congressman Eni Faleomavega, a Democratic member in the White House in 2007, answered West Papua appeals by travelling to Indonesia with fellow Republican congressmen. However, Faleomavega group stopped in Jakarta and went back to the US without significant result. He later conveyed privately that during his stay in Jakarta; senior West Papuans leaders, famous figures in civil society and independence leaders in exiles, all had urged him to stop supporting independence. Faleomavega was concerned that West Papuans leadership itself was clearly not unified and support him in his efforts to lobby the White House.

  1. Story Versus Silence : Genocide Framing

In a human rights repertoire, not only the messenger is important but the content of the message within a frame is also essential (Brysk, 2012, p.79). East Timor does not rely on charismatic leaders alone, but also what rights claim they delivered and what frame they will be using to incorporate story of the victims, labels the genre of human rights abuse, locates the offenders, and suggest a response.

Indonesia’s annexation over East Timor can only be described as dreadful and disastrous and years of Indonesian diplomacy have not been able to clear the embarrassment. Indonesian army was failed to deliver they promised –a swift military job over in weeks, and their intense viciousness dragged on until two decades later (Schwarz, 1999, p.116). Operation Seroja in 1975-1977 was the biggest military operation ever carried out by Indonesian army designed to invade East Timor and overthrow the Fretilin-led government. It was estimated to have brutally killed around 100.000-180.000 soldiers and civilian in just the first three years of Indonesia’s occupation (Taylor, 1999, p.71). The bloody beginning of the Timor campaign cost Indonesia a great deal as it deeply stiffened East Timor’s resolve for resistance and showered Fretilin with a degree of popular support than ever (Dunn, 1996, p.260). The tragedy also served as a base for East Timor’s rights claims and labeled the human rights abuses in East Timor as genocide. Gusmao, Belo, and Ramos-Horta were repeatedly using the genocide label and even compare the situation in East Timor with that of Jewish Holocaust. The evidence of a genocide occurring, according to the three independence leaders, is how the Indonesian military army depopulating the region by cleansing the indigenous people of East Timor (CNN; 1999).

Genocide is a heinous crime conceded in the human rights regime, together with war crimes and crime against humanity. It has been declared as the ultimate criminal act with the status of jus cogens in Genocide Convention, prohibited both by treaty and also customary international laws (cited in Robertson, 2006, p.363). A human rights abuse framed in the act of genocide is therefore, a very powerful one. Famous scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Jardine Matthew has detailed their critics and claims over the death of one third of East Timor population and classified them as genocide (cited in Bartrop, P. R., & Jacobs, S. L, 2014, pp.795-797). Although, Saul (2001, p.498) argues that a charge of genocide is very difficult to be applied to Indonesia’s mass killings in East Timor, because no specific groups that was recognized by International Law was targeted. There are, however, many witnesses about the selective killings of Chinese ethnic in East Timor during Indonesia invasion in 1975. Almost all ethnic Chinese in cities that was successfully seized from Fretilin’s control at that time were massacred by Indonesian army (Dunn, 1996, pp.252-254).

In West Papua, the accusation of genocide intent and the use of the label to deliver West Papua right claims to the International community mostly started around the era of exclusive military operations (Heidebuchel, 2007, p.42). Independence advocates of West Papua have also use the genocide claims to label their fight against Indonesian state actors. Benny Wenda and Victor Yeimo, the spokesperson for West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat or KNPB) has expressed their concern over ‘silent genocide’ occurring in West Papua. Head of the Baptist Church in Papua also argued that military operations, stigmatisation, racism, the spread of HIV, and Indonesia government programs to populate West Papua with migrants, –all of them is part of a genocidal behaviour (cited in Elmslie & Webb-Gannon, 2014, p.143). In 2005, a report prepared by Peter King and John Wing for the West Papua Project at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney specifically concluded that the gradual destruction, but systematically and deliberately by Indonesian government, of the Papuans as genocide (Wing & King, 2005).

Peter King account about genocide in West Papua was countered by Aspinall (2006, p.139) by reiterating that King’s interpretive framework about genocidal behavior is by identifying all official crimes and wrongdoing in Papua as evidence of genocide. The indictment about Indonesia military evil misconducts in Papua is not confined to the region alone, argued Aspinall, but also in other parts of Indonesia. Similar academic debate also occurred between Elmslie and Upton; both agreed that West Papua has experienced a large scale of demographic transformation with significant human abuses done by Indonesia military forces but Upton refused the application of genocide for what he considered a normal pattern of inter-island migration (cited in Kirksey, p.226). The most important thing about investigating genocide is to locate element of genocidal intent or the requisite of mens rea, and this is remained tentative in West Papuan case. Not only King, but previous academic writers peering into genocide issue in Papua also found the element of intent is inconclusive or indecisive (Banivanua-Mar, 2008; Brundige,, 2004; Boediarjo & Liem, 1998). One of the reason of the difficulty to obtain genocide intent is because the lack of comprehensive records in the past and present about Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua (Brundige,, 2004). Most studies of violence in the West Papua were conducted in secrecy, from a distance, and relying on sporadic reports.

The genocide framing is powerful in human rights campaign, but only if the framing is coherent and sound. Brysk (2012, p.99) compares the two cases of human rights campaign in Congo and Darfur where genocidal behavior were suspected. Darfur garnered International response while Congo received minimal recognition, despite the number of casualties was estimated to be more than tenfold of Darfur’s. The confusion over what happened in Congo with complex casualties and shifting relations between victims and perpetrators, was drowned by the solid framing of Darfur conflict where a certain ethnic group in government using its military power to kill other groups. Kristof (cited in Brysk, 2012, p.104) concludes that the distinctive impact of genocide label is because humanity’s moral compass does not only moved by the display of human’s suffering, but also by human evil. It needs to see not only the number of deaths resulted, but also the apparent government policy that driven it.

III. Media

On 12 November 1991, Indonesian military were shooting unarmed pro-independence protesters gathered in Santa Cruz cemetery. The peaceful demonstration was previously organized as a memorial mass for a pro-independence youth killed by Indonesian army two weeks earlier. The civilian casualties of this massacre was estimated differently, ranging from 100-300 people, with many more injured. The footages of the Santa Cruz massacre were filmed and successfully smuggled out by Max Stahl, a British journalist, deployed to Dili to cover the supposed visit of Portuguese delegation. The footage of the massacre was distributed and aired for the first time on media worldwide. The images of the massacre making major impact on International opinion and effectively marking the emergence of International network for East Timor independence (Brown, 2003, p.211; Taylor, 1999, p.213; Schwarz, 1999, p.212).

The ingenious use of media in East Timor’s human rights campaign was highlighted by Constancio Pinto (2001, pp.33-35), a former head of the underground movement in East Timor in 1992. In the interview, Pinto described how the mass participating in the Santa Cruz demonstration was instructed to not provoke any violence from the Indonesian army. The demonstration also deliberately designed by pro-independence groups in East Timor in the presence of International community. Pinto said, “We decided that we had to do something since we had all these foreigners.” In the night before the demonstration, Pinto contacted two US journalists, Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, and asked them to invite all foreign journalists to Santa Cruz cemetery. The footage not only shows a crowd of non-violent demonstrators was being helplessly massacred, but also it was connecting with the previous innocent victim narrative in the early Indonesian invasion. When brief details of radio messages and letters arrived in Lisbon in 1976 about the senseless killings in East Timor, it served as the most serious case of human rights contravention in the world at that time (Taylor, 1999, pp.79-80).

Over the past decade, Brysk stresses, mobilization and solidarity acts over the Internet have enabled a new kind of human right campaigns that is very dynamic in pushing their political agenda. This wild current of new media dialectics has helped West Papua independence struggle after the demise of Theys Eluays. Kirksey (2012, p.180) wrote how OPM guerilla forces have become technology savvy to the point where they made surprising post about independence over Papua’s official website set up by the provincial government. The West Papuans started to exploit vulnerabilities within emergent cyber infrastructures. John Anari, a pro-independence activist based in Papua, also utilized Internet to build his campaign from scratch. The West Papua Liberation Organization (WPLO) Facebook page he created later brought Anari to the US to meet with contacts at the United Nations and International NGO’s (Zaitchik, 2015, p.64). The Federal Republic of West Papua (FWRP) that was established on 19 October 2011 managed their proposal as an unrecognized state and their official affairs by Internet website to avoid coercion from Indonesia apparatus (FWRP, 2015). However, the message about West Papua presented in the media is not entirely clear, as the debate over genocide or not genocide going back and forth, human rights abuses, there are also various demands from various parties from full independence, the right for self-determination, until the demand to formally review the 1969 Act of Free Choice.

Prior to the Indonesian invasion, East Timor also received more media attention in compare to West Papua. Media coverage at that time concerns over the context of the collapse of Portuguese imperial system in the collapse of World War. The media also focuses on the same perspective of human rights for East Timor case and especially the right for self-determination for the people (Chomsky, 2001, p.139). After the East Timor momentum, the fight for West Papuans is even more difficult. It is not only they have to send the right message to the media and deliver their change to non-violent movement, but West Papuans also have to deal with the decreasingly embraced logic of postcolonial liberation. Kirksey (2012, p.201) review the talks in British parliament that repeat the UK position of not supporting West Papuan independence. Australia and Netherlands also firm in their position after issuing support for Indonesia’s sovereignty. The story about nationalist revolutions and the promise of liberation has been overwhelmed by the news stories of violent turmoil of many breakaway states after Cold War, particularly East Timor and its ongoing unrest after independence from Indonesia. Many decision makers, asserts Kirksey, have lost faith in the prospect of new nations struggles.

  1. Performance without Borders

The power of specific forms of structured narratives can assists in constructing the social imaginary of human rights, and when it’s performed in public spaces the life narratives of human rights abuse put a human face on a massive abuse (Brysk, 2012, p.107). The importance of performance for Brysk is because facts could not speak for itself, thus there should be a discursive strategy on how to utilize the facts and make it more effective in specific forms of performance. When the footage of Santa Cruz brutal killings in 1991 was aired and photographs of suffering in East Timor started to circulate in the world, the political will to end East Timor suffering was not instantly available.

Susan Sontag (1979, p.17) in her famous work ‘On Photography’ reiterated that the impact of photographs of suffering or misery in war would not be able to influence public opinion unless there are an appropriate context of feeling and attitude. The appropriate context for the fact confined in the photograph that Sontag underlines, have to be created by building a critical public awareness through handwringing –excessive displays of concern and distress, to build International channel of recognition (Brysk, 2012, p.110). In East Timor case, the highly active East Timor diaspora community was the main actor in constructing the human rights repertoires. Approximately 20.000 East Timorese people has come to Australia since Indonesia occupation, more than 10.000 reside in Portugal, and the other few dispersed to Macau, Mozambique, Canada, the United States, Ireland and other parts of the world (Wise, 2004, p.152). Although small, the East Timor diaspora group focused and maintained a long-distance nationalism and nurture a highly vibrant and dynamic community built on important alliances with the Australian and the International community.

The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) in the United States has demonstrated the strength of the diaspora diplomacy abroad in the spring of 1993, by organizing a five-week speaking tour by five young East Timorese exiles, introducing them as the ‘New Generation of Resistance Fighters’ to more than thirty cities throughout the United States (Gunderson, 2015, p.82). From 1992 to 1996, ETAN also campaigned and challenged the flow of weapon sales, US military aid and military training to Indonesia. It focuses its effort to erode the US-Indonesia military relationship, believing that it is the most effective lever to pressure Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor. In 1997, US Congress responded to the pressure by banning the use of US supplied weapon in East Timor and US military training aid to Indonesia (Scheiner, 2001, p.110).

Similarly, the performances for human rights campaign in West Papua also depend on the diaspora community abroad. In the border of West Papua and Papua New Guinea there are approximately 40.000 people of Papuans that enjoyed the extended sanctuary in the regions. An organization called MelSol (Melanesian Solidarity Group for Justice and Dignity) has run several human right campaign, including for West Papuans, since 1980’s in Papua New Guinea. In Germany, West Papua Netzwerk is an active forum of German churches, solidarity networks and other groups of activists fighting for West Papua cause. In Europe, Netherlands become the center of Papuan support network, with PaVO (Foundation for Study and Information on the Papuan Peoples) based in Utrecht (King, 2004, pp.172-173). There are also several documentary films about West Papua struggle and independence leaders, mostly by British director Dominic Brown, that has received awards in the US in 2011 and 2015 (Dominic Brown, 2015). Most of these performances however, still lingering around the story about indigenous armed resistance against colonial government in Indonesia. In global scale, the solidarity networks in West Papua have mostly prioritized the high-level lobbying towards Western countries, in exception of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea (Pelcher, 2012).

  1. Audience

The final phase of communicative elements is reaching a receptive audience. Brsyk (2013, p.163) asserts that although some struggle can become widely diffused in a short time, a lot of human rights campaigns have to target, cultivate, and construct attentive audience with politics of persuasion. In East Timor, the first layer of audience is solidly built within networks of professional solidarity of Catholic Church institution. Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, one of the shared Nobel Peace Prize awardee in 1996, is a figure that represents a central instrument in East Timor struggle of independence. The Catholic Church has become an institution that demonstrated its unrivalled connection with East Timor people and also construct the first naturally attentive audience through professional solidarity. The Catholic Church in East Timor has played a very dominant role, particularly with a degree of immunity awarded to the Church by Vatican in dealing with Indonesian state apparatus. It has become the embodiment of non-violent resistance (Kohen, 2001, p.44).

The religious communities’ network in West Papua is also dominated by Church institution, but the same fictive kinship that managed to be established in East Timor, did not bear the same result in West Papua. There are several Church institutions in West Papua. Each one of them have different stance over West Papua independence struggle, with some even encouraging quietism. The Baptist Church tend to support pro-independence group for human rights reasons, and its prominent leader, Sofyan Yoman, regularly put forward arguments about ongoing genocide in West Papua. Likewise, the similar position also being adopted by Kingmi Church. Indonesian government is suspected of attempting to break these two Churches to isolate and dilute their human rights campaigns (Macleod, 2014, p.52). The Catholic Church and Protestant Church is somehow more neutral towards independence movement. Their moderate views edicts that human rights abuses in West Papua has to be solved by Indonesian government, but if the state is considered incapable, West Papua needs to fight for independence (Heidbuchel, 2007, p.106).

Furthermore, unlike East Timor, where more than nine percent of its people had choose Catholic and thus easier to unite, in West Papua the Church need to share equal political roles in religious community with growing Muslim community. Islam now comprises of almost 40% of the people in West Papua, although most of them are migrants non-indigenous Papuans. There is a growing concern that human rights campaign in West Papua is appealing exclusively to Christian audience and indigenous identity, and that actually weaken the campaign itself. As the appeals failed to include the key audience in the Indonesian government and in many part of Papua land too : the Indonesian people (Macleod, 2013).

Conclusion : Outcome

Analyzing from the almost all elements of Brysk communication power, it can be argued that East Timor human rights campaign has a more coherent structure than its West Papua counterpart. Many academic pointed out that the West Papua has the same ingredients that can make the same strong case as East Timor. However, the voices of recognition in West Papua are still in disarray state. The genocide framing that the people of West Papua choose to use also not as sound as the East Timor case, examining from the lack of academics support over the evidence of genocidal behavior. The East Timor campaign was aided by –in horrible way, of the Indonesian army frustration over the dragged conflict with Fretilin and subsequent bloody civilian massacre. The non-violent resistance characterized by the Catholic Church in East Timor even since the Indonesia invasion era was also helpful in making the case of genocide solid and more empathetic. The performances and media usage for East Timor case is also more focused within the narrative of human rights and the right of self-determination because the East Timor people never have one since the invasion. The methods used by West Papuans to cultivate and construct its audience is also considerably weaker because the divided opinion among the Church leaders and also the lack of appeals to Moslem community. At present, West Papua has to find a better way to reframe or reconstruct its human rights campaign to win the International public and subsequently pressure more political will from Indonesian government for its cause. It is necessary here to quote Karen Orenstein, the leader of ETAN network in the US, that “Politics is not about facts, it is about stories.”


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