Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | VII. The September 2007 Crackdown

Since the crackdown, many have wondered, “What happened to the monks?” Several hundred monks, possibly more than 1,000, were arrested, and 237 remain in prison as of August 2009.[1] Some fled overseas, but more went back to life as laypeople. Many monasteries in Rangoon and elsewhere now have less than half as many monks as they had in September 2007. Ahead of the second anniversary of the crackdown, many monasteries inside Burma have been the subject of increased surveillance, visits by security personnel to check on monks suspected of activism, and curbs on movements and even public sermons by monks.[2] The government’s fears of resumed protests led by the monks remains well founded.

Beginning in late 2008, Burmese courts summarily tried and sentenced hundreds of political activists to lengthy prison terms. Some were sentenced to as much as 65 years.[3] Many were Buddhist monks and nuns. Some had been arrested during protests on the streets, while others were rounded up during brutal nighttime raids on monasteries and religious schools in Rangoon in September and October.

During the late 2008 sentencing wave of more than 250 political activists, 46 monks and four nuns were sentenced to prison, many with hard labor. Five monks from the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery, which suffered a bloody and brutal raid on the night of September 26, were sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. The nuns imprisoned include 84-year-old Daw Ponnami (who was eventually released in February 2009), 70-year-old Daw Htay Yi, and 64-year-old Daw Pyinyar Theingyi, each from Rangoon’s Thitsa Tharaphu School and each sentenced to four years of hard labor. Also sentenced at the same trial were senior abbots of the Artharwaddy Monastic School, such as 65-year old U Yevada. His school was brutally raided on the night of September 26 as security forces were searching for activist monks. All seven monks and nuns were charged under sections 295 and 295(a) of the Penal Code, which prohibit insulting a group’s religion by harming or defiling a place of worship, or committing deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings by insulting a group’s religion or religious beliefs.

In some specific cases, U Kaylartha, a monk from Mandalay, received 35 years’ imprisonment; U Sandar Wara was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years; and Abbot U San Dimar of Kyar Monastary in Rangoon’s Pazundaung township received eight years and is facing additional charges that could add to his sentence. A young monk, U Thaddama from Garna Puli monastery, was sentenced to 19 years of imprisonment.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the monks was 28-year-old U Gambira (a pseudonym for U Sandawbartha). He was one of the most visible and outspoken young monks leading the demonstrations, a key organizer, switching his time between Rangoon and Mandalay to avoid the authorities. He went underground following the crackdown but was hunted down and arrested in Burma’s northwestern Sagaing Division on November 4, 2007. His father was arrested on the day U Gambira was caught and held for one month in Mandalay prison. On the day of his arrest, the Washington Post published an article by U Gambira in which he said:

The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture, and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us. We have taken their best punch. Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.[4]

Following his arrest, U Gambira was badly tortured and stripped of his monk’s robes. As a result of his torture, he is reported to be in poor health. On March 14, 2008, U Gambira, who refused to accept that he had been disrobed, was placed in solitary confinement, apparently as a punishment for his role in instigating the chanting of Buddhist suttas while inside Insein prison.[5]

On October 1, 2008, U Gambira’s lawyer, Aung Thein, resigned from the case, saying that the military government had not allowed him to prepare a proper defense. U Gambira went on trial that day, charged with nine separate criminal offenses.[6] He was sentenced in November to 68 years in prison and soon transferred to a labor camp in Burma’s western Sagaing Division. His sentence was reduced by five years in early 2009, to a total of 63 years.

U Gambira’s mother, Daw Yay, visited her son in the remote prison in early 2009, soon after he began a hunger strike. She said he was resolute in his commitment to change in Burma, telling her:

If one wants [to follow] the way of the Buddha, one must practice Buddhism. If one wants independence, one must practice the way towards independence.[7]

Daw Yay also spoke of the impact of the arrests on her and her family. She told Radio Free Asia:

My life, and my family’s life, is just clockwork now. We eat and sleep like robots. There is no life in our bodies. The ordeal we are going through—it’s a punishment for our entire family.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPPB) reported that at least seven monks who had been detained after the crackdown were in poor health, including U Gambira.[8]

Conditions for monks who were not arrested but who remained inside Burma after the crackdown became extremely difficult. “U Vicitta” (not his real name), a middle-aged monk at a monastery in Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch what happened to him:

I come from Moulmein but I have been a monk in Rangoon for a long time. I participated in the protests in September [2007]. Right now my monastery is being watched all the time, by people in and out of uniform. There are no bogus monks in the monastery, but there could be some infiltrators. Before September 2007, there were 500 monks in my monastery. Today only 200 remain. Everyone in our monastery supported the demonstrations against the junta.[9]

According to U Vicitta, among the other monasteries in Rangoon that have been under especially strict surveillance after the crackdown are Shwe Na Pan in Thinganyunt township in Rangoon, the Kyaiuk Ka San Veda and Brahma Vihaya monasteries in Rangoon, Ngwe Kyar Yan in South Okkalapa, Moe Kyang monastery in Moe Kyang township, and the Ma Soe Yin monastery in Mandalay.

U Viccita said that the monks who were not arrested “went underground to evade arrest.” He continued:

For us, it was not politics, but a question of religion. We just went out into the streets to recite metta sutta, loving kindness. We did not advocate violence to overthrow the government, but we wanted an apology for what happened in Pakokku. We wanted the government to have a better policy for the people. So we decided to boycott the junta with our bowls turned upside-down. That’s called patta nikkujjana kamma. We did not accept food, medicines or anything from the authorities. That’s the only way we can fight for our rights. This has nothing to do with politics. The same thing happened during the time of the Buddha when there was a bad king, an evil king, who hurt the monks and the people. At that time, the monks also protested. But then the king had to apologize, and it was all over. But this junta refused to apologize. That was why we continued our protests. And they are continuing—we are still opposed to the junta, but we can’t fight against men with guns. We’re biding our time. But we are not afraid to protest again.[10]

After the crackdown, many monks and novices returned to their villages, some voluntarily, some forced to do so. But U Manita, whose experiences during the protests were described above, decided to return to his monastery in Rangoon:

I’m being watched all the time. I am considered an organizer. Between noon and 2 p.m. I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I’m followed. I had to shake off my tail to come to this meeting today. I’m not afraid, not for myself. I’m not afraid to tell foreign journalists what happened. And I’m prepared to march again when the opportunity arises. We don’t want this junta. And that’s what everyone at my monastery thinks as well. We don’t have any organization any more. We have no way of keeping in touch with each other. Before, both monks and laymen could communicate with each other. Now everything is crushed. We have no contact. Many have disappeared, or they have been arrested, or moved to other monasteries outside Rangoon. We can just wait and see. We are still not accepting offerings from the military. We’re waiting to go out and protest again.[11]

He says that plainclothes agents can be seen outside the monastery. According to U Manita:

They’re easily recognizable because they have walkie-talkies tucked in their longyis (Burmese sarongs). There are also policemen. But no soldiers inside the temple gates.[12]

U Manita was upset because the junta in its propaganda claimed that the monks who marched were “bogus monks.” “I know it was not like that,” he said. “The monks who marched were real monks.”[13]

Ma Soe Yin monastery in Mandalay was a center of the demonstrations in 1990, and again in 2007. According to “U Sunanda” (not his real name), a senior monk in his sixties at Ma Soe Yin:

All the monks here supported the protests in September [2007]. We gave our tacit approval to the novices to go out and join the marches. But we did not outright encourage them to do so. That we could not do as senior monks. After a few days, the soldiers shot in the air, and also fired off smoke bombs. Two or three monks were arrested, then released.

Outside these temple walls, there is dictatorship. But inside the Ma Soe Yin monastery, there is democracy. We say whatever we want. We’re not afraid. Here are 30 senior monks and 600 monk students and novices. It is a Pali university, and we were also active in the 1988-90 democracy movement. We’re inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle against British colonialism. We’re also well aware of our own traditions, the role of Buddhist monks in Burma’s political and social history.

We had contacts with other sympathetic monasteries and we communicated in code. We’ve got mobile phones, but we don’t know how to use the internet. We sent messages mainly by personal couriers, and then verbal messages. Nothing in writing. It was safer that way. But now we’re keeping a low profile and we don’t communicate with other monasteries because we are under surveillance. There are secret organizations made up of monks who are opposed to the government. But it’s better for us not to know how they work and who are active in those organizations. That way we can’t say anything if we are arrested, tortured and interrogated.[14]

He is also aware of the strengths as well as weaknesses of the 2007 movement:

There was no national plan for the protests last September. We believe the protests broke out spontaneously all over the country. Monks also heard about the protests on the BBC, VOA, and DVB. The problem last September was that not enough laymen marched together with us. It was not like 1988, when the whole country rose up, which at least led to free elections. The 2007 uprising was too small so it could be crushed very quickly. But even so we believe the regime will fall in a couple of years. Because something was achieved last September. A whole new generation of monks has been politicized. We’re educating them. We’re still boycotting the military. We are not accepting gifts and offerings from them. One of the reasons why the regime will fall is globalization. No country can be isolated like before. Look at Indonesia, that regime fell. Now it’s a democracy. We want the UN’s Security Council to take up the Burma issue, that the UN investigates what really happened last September. But China and Russia can use their veto. Please tell the world what’s happening in our country![15]

“U Igara” (not his real name) is 27-years-old and comes from Sagaing Division. His parents were farmers but he was an outstanding pupil when he was a child. One of his brothers is a professional in Singapore, another in South Africa. U Igara chose to become a monk after finishing high school:

I’m a senior monk, but the youngest of the senior monks [in my monastery]. I’m responsible for students who’re studying Pali. I also speak some English and Hindi. I did not take part in the marches [last September] but many of my students did.[16]

“U Kosalla” (not his real name) is a senior monk in Mandalay. He was closely allied with U Gambira, one of the most prominent leaders of the 2007 demonstrations:

I have been a monk for more than 20 years, a senior monk for five years. I’ve studied Pali extensively but I’m also known for my political activism. My students, the junta, everyone knows that I am opposed to the regime. Emotions were quite inflamed after the price hikes and the events in Pakokku last year. Some wanted to use violence, but I said: “Go out and demonstrate. But don’t be violent. Be careful.”

During the protests last September, virtually all the Pali students here in Mandalay joined the marches. But I stayed in the background, organizing things. I communicated with other monks in Mandalay sometimes by mobile phone, but more often by personal messengers. If we used phones, we also used codes. We knew that our phones were monitored. Most senior monks have mobile phones. So we were able to coordinate the marches. But everything was quieter here in Mandalay than in Rangoon. Some laymen also joined in here in Mandalay, but not as many as in Rangoon. Perhaps that was the reason why they [the military] didn’t crack down as hard here as in Rangoon? They fired smoke bombs, shot in the air, and ordered the monks and novices to return to their monasteries. But they didn’t fire into the crowds. A couple of monks were arrested and interrogated, but they were released after a day or so.[17]

Our monastery joined the boycott against the military and we refused to accept offerings from them. According to our scriptures, if someone does something really bad to Buddhism, the monks and the people have the right to boycott him or them.

However, some monasteries in Mandalay were surrounded by the military and other security forces:

That led to an end to the protests. And when people here heard what had happened in Rangoon, many parents came to collect their children and took them back to their villages. Perhaps as many as 70 or 80 percent of the monks and novices in Mandalay went home.

They wanted to arrest me, but I went underground and spent nine months in a monastery in the countryside. Meanwhile, military intelligence agents went to my home village and asked where I was. They interrogated my family. I was able to keep out of sight, but many others were apprehended in their home villages and taken into custody. There, they were interrogated. Some were beaten. But they were released after a few days.[18]

U Kosalla returned to Mandalay, but the authorities were watching him and his movements:

Our monastery is also under surveillance. There are military intelligence agents outside, and they watch everyone who goes in and out of the gates. A man from the security services comes every morning and evening to check who of the monks are here, then he leaves. It’s a routine control, but I’m also convinced that some monks report what’s going on here to the authorities.[19]

“U Agga Swe” (not his real name), a young monk who has since fled to Sri Lanka, also experienced intense surveillance on the Sangha after the crackdown. It was one of the reasons he fled:

Many monks stay inside their monasteries, where they feel safe. Laymen have warned them that, “if you go outside, you’ll be arrested.” They go out only on pindapata [alms seeking], not otherwise. Monks venturing out alone, especially in afternoons and evenings, are checked and harassed by the MI [Military Intelligence, OMAS]. We don’t know how many have been arrested, and the monks inside Burma are afraid to use mobile phones and e-mail because MI are monitoring all communication in and out of Burma. Monks inside Burma don’t dare to go to Internet cafes because MI is watching those as well. MI agents follow those who go into Internet cafés and then check what they do there, who they contact and what websites they access.[20]

“U Pannacara” (not his real name) told Human Rights Watch about the SPDC authorities’ use of draconian household registration practices to monitor the movements of monks. According to him, monks are subject to surprise raids by authorities to make sure all the registered monks at a certain monastery are there. No visitors are allowed without prior permission by local authorities. He said:

Our school is being watched, and major monasteries are also under strict surveillance. Agents come at midnight to check if the monks who are registered at a particular monastery are there. They even break up boxes and chests belonging to the monks to look for anti-government literature, or phone numbers to foreign countries.[21]

U Kosalla refers to an underground organization of monks called Sangha Sameggi, or the Sangha Association, which is also the name of an old Buddhist organization in Burma,

It was founded in Rangoon four or five years ago. It is very secretive, underground. I’m not a member, but the junta may think I am. But their [Sangha Sameggi] aim and ours is the same: justice. We want all political prisoners to be released, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the monks who were arrested after last September. We also want official negotiations, a dialogue, between the NLD, dissident monks, and the military government. We don’t want to have a conflict with the military government, which we could never win. We are only monks and they’ve got guns. We want peace. But the long-term goal is, of course, democracy and an end to the junta’s power. I know that some monks say that we should not get involved in politics, and this is politics, not a religious matter. But I disagree with them. The monks must take the lead. We must be good examples, examples the people can follow. But we should not use violence.

There are many politically active monks here. We’re just waiting for the next opportunity to protest again. But next time we must get the public at large more involved. Only then, if more people join us, will this regime be forced to give in. I know that there are people even within the police and the military who don’t like the regime. The junta must be forced to negotiate with us. And I want the outside world to put pressure on China because the Chinese support the junta in our country.[22]

Like many other dissident monks, U Kosalla does not have much good to say about the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee during the demonstrations and in the aftermath:

I and the monks here don’t like the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. When monks were killed in 2007, they kept silent. They should have issued a statement saying that it’s unacceptable to kill or hurt monks. But they did nothing. When they at last said something on the radio and TV, they said we should not oppose the junta. Their statement was sent to all senior monks in Mandalay. They [the members of the State Maha Sangha Nayaka Committee] are just puppets of the regime. Even if they know something about old scriptures they haven’t got a clue how people live. They know nothing about the country in which they live. Here in our monastery we say that we respect them. But we don’t. We respect only the Buddha. Not a committee made up of puppets of the military.

My young students don’t know much about 1988 and what happened at that time, or the history of resistance against the government. But, besides teaching them Pali, I tell then what the junta is doing, and how to resist repression. But I tell only students I consider receptive to such ideas.[23]

U Sovanna’s thoughts about the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee are similar to those of other monks: “I don’t like them at all. They should have said: ‘Stop shooting and beating monks!’ But they didn’t say anything like that. They obey the regime. Personally, I would like to overthrow that committee. No monks have any confidence in them anymore.”[24]

BOX: Chronology of Events, August-September 2007

August 15: The government increases prices for petrol by 100 percent and for CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) by 500 percent.

August 19: A group of people led by the “88 Generation Students Group” (veterans of the 1988 uprising) stage a peaceful march in Rangoon. Housewives join the protests.

August 21: Thirteen leaders of the “88 Generation Students Group” are arrested, among them Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Phone Cho, who had played prominent roles in the 1988 uprising and subsequently spent years in jail.

August 22: Small demonstrations are held in various parts of Rangoon. Members of the pro-government USDA, backed by police, break up the demonstrations. Over 100 people are arrested, mainly from the “88 Generation Students Group” and NLD Youth.

August 25: Htin Kyaw, a prominent NLD activist, is arrested after a protest in Rangoon’s Theingyi market.

August 28: 200 monks march through Sittwe in Arakan (Rakhine) State in protest against the poor economic state of the nation. The government warns the monks not to join the protests.

September 3: About 1,000 people demonstrate in Labutta, Irrawaddy Division.

September 4: About 1,000 people demonstrate in Taunggok, Arakan (Rakhine) State, demanding the release of two activists arrested on August 31 for protesting against the rise in fuel prices.

September 5: Several hundred monks stage a demonstration in Pakokku. Security forces confront the monks and, according to some sources, fire warning shots in the air. Other sources claim laymen as well as monks were severely beaten by the security forces and that one monk was killed. At last three monks are reportedly arrested.

September 6: A group of 20 government officials are detained by the monks in a monastery in Pakokku to secure the release of the monks who were arrested in September 5. One car is burnt and a government building attacked by monks.

September 9: A group called the All-Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) distributes a leaflet stating that the peaceful demonstration against the rise in fuel prices was brutally suppressed. The group issues an ultimatum, demanding an apology for the treatment of the monks in Pakokku, by September 17. The group also demands a reduction of the prices of various commodities, the release of all political prisoners, and that the government should enter into a dialog with the pro-democracy movement.

September 11: A meeting takes place in Pakokku between the Minister for Religious Affairs, Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung, and local abbots. The minister offers money as compensation to those monks who were beaten and disrobed after the September 5 demonstration.

September 14: The ABMA announces that they will refuse alms from SPDC officials beginning September 17 (the ultimatum deadline).

September 17: The ultimatum deadline passes with no apology; monks all over Burma prepare to march against the government.

September 18: Three hundred mostly young monks march in Rangoon, from the Shwedagon to the Botataung Pagoda, on the 19th anniversary of the September 18, 1988 coup. The monks say they will begin boycotting alms from army personnel and their associates.

September 19: Tens of thousands of monks march in Rangoon, Prome, Pegu, Mandalay, and Kalaymyo (in Sagaing Division). Laypeople offer them drinking water and cheer them on. Thousands of laypeople in Rangoon form a protective circle around the monks.

September 20: More monks march in Rangoon and in Monywa, Mandalay Division. Monks from Pegu try to reach the capital, but are stopped on the way by security forces.

September 21: Heavy rain falls in Rangoon, but the monks continue their marches. The ABMA issues a statement condemning the “evil military dictatorship” and proclaims that it will “banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever.”

September 22: The monks’ movement spreads to Myitkyina and Bhamo in Kachin State (many Buddhist Shan and Burmese live in the towns of this predominantly Christian state). A group of hundreds of monks in Rangoon walk up to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on University Avenue in Rangoon. She comes to the gate to greet them as they chant the Metta Sutta, and talks briefly to one of the monks. 

September 23: The police block the street leading to Suu Kyi’s house. Buddhist nuns join the marches in Rangoon. Students and artists also join the monks.

September 24: Tens of thousands of monks, nuns, and laymen march in Rangoon. Similar marches are also held in Mandalay, Pegu, Sagaing, Magwe, and Kawthaung (in Tenasserim Division). Well-known actors and other civilians start offering food to the monks as they start the marches.

September 25: Monks march in towns all over Burma. In Sittwe, Arakan State, 100,000 people take part in the protests. Truckloads of troops begin to arrive in Rangoon. A 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is imposed in Rangoon. Gatherings of more than five people are banned. Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in South Okkalapa, and Meggin monastery, Thingangyun, are raided. About 80 monks are arrested and the monastery looted.

September 26: The marches continue, more troops arrive in Rangoon. The crackdown begins. Police and soldiers open fire on the demonstrators. Troops surround several monasteries in Rangoon to prevent the monks from marching. Several monasteries are raided during the night. NLD spokespersons U Myint Thein and U Hla Pa are arrested.

September 27: Soldiers and police charge demonstrators, who are mainly civilians. Few monks are seen in downtown Rangoon. Shots and smoke bombs are fired, scores of demonstrators are arrested. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, issues a surprisingly blunt statement through Singapore (as ASEAN chair), expressing its “revulsion” at reports that peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon were being violently crushed by the security forces. Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photographer, is shot and killed by a Burmese soldier. The government holds a press conference in the new capital Naypyidaw blaming “internal and external destructive elements” for the “disturbances.”

September 28: Demonstrators gather in front of the Traders Hotel, where several international agencies have their offices. The violent crackdown continues, with heavy military presence all over Rangoon. Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery is occupied by the army. Almost 3,000 people are arrested, of whom 1,000 are reported to be Buddhist monks and novices. An eerie calm returns to Rangoon. In Mandalay, troops from the 33rd Light Infantry Division reportedly refuse to shoot protesting monks. Marches continue there and in Kyaukpadaung (near the ancient temple city of Pagan).

September 29: Internet is cut off, mobile phone access to and from Burma is severely restricted. Last small demonstrations peter out, arrests and raids continue throughout Rangoon.


[1]  See figures contained in AAPPB, “Summary of current situation,” August 2009, on file with Human Rights Watch.
[2] awi Weng, “Security Tight on Anniversary of Monk-led Uprising,” The Irrawaddy, September 5, 2009, (accessed September 5, 2009).
Arkar Moe, “Junta Warns Buddhist Monks Online,” The Irrawaddy, August 26, 2009, (accessed August 30, 2009).
[3]  Human Rights Watch news release, “Burma: Free Activists Sentenced by Unfair Courts,” November 11, 2008, For a full list of those sentenced see Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma at
[4]  U Gambira, “What Burma’s Junta Must Fear,” Washington Post, November 4, 2007, p. B07.
[5]  For a profile of U Gambira, see See also Ko Maw, “Head held high, Ashin Gambira will never bow to junta,” Mizzima News, November 15, 2008.
[6]  These included violations of sections 505(a) and (b) of the State Offense Act (threatening the stability of the government); Immigration Act 13/1 (reportedly a reference to his visit to Mae Sot, Thailand, in July 2005); Illegal Organization Act 17/1; Electronic Act 303 A; and Organization Act 6.
[7] “Burma Monks’ Leader Urges Resistance,”Radio Free Asia, March 18, 2009, (accessed March 19, 2009).
[8] Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, Burma’s prisons and labour camps: silent killing fields, (Mae Sot: AAPPB, May 11, 2009).
[9]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Viccita,” Rangoon, July 2008.
[10]  Ibid.
[11]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Manita,” Burma, July 2008.
[12]  Ibid.
[13]  Ibid.
[14]  Human Rights  Watch interview with “U Sunanda,” Burma, July 2008.
[15]  Ibid. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB, a Norway-based broadcasting station run by the pro-democracy movement) all have popular Burmese-language programs.
[16]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Igara,” Burma, July 2008.
[17]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Burma, July 2008.
[18]  Ibid.
[19]  Ibid.
[20]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Agga Swe,” Colombo, October 29, 2008.
[21]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Pannacara,” Colombo, October 29, 2008.
[22]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Burma, July 2008.
[23]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Burma, July 2008.
[24]  Human Rights watch interview with “U Sovanna,” Mandalay, July 2008.

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