• Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh

    Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh

    Bangladesh is home to more than 54 indigenous peoples speaking more than 35 languages. Bangladesh has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the economic and political rights of the country's indigenous peoples remain ignored.

The Indigenous World 2024: Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a country of cultural and ethnic diversity, with over 54 Indigenous Peoples speaking at least 35 languages, along with the majority Bengali population. According to the 2022 census, the country’s Indigenous population numbers approximately 1,650,478[1] which represents 1% of the total population. Indigenous Peoples in the country, however, claim that their population stands at some 4 million.[2] The majority of the Indigenous population lives in the plains districts of the country,[3] and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

The state does not recognise Indigenous Peoples as “Indigenous”. Nevertheless, since the 15th amendment of the constitution, adopted in 2011, people with distinct ethnic identities beyond the Bengali population are now mentioned.[4] Yet only cultural aspects are mentioned, whereas major issues related to Indigenous Peoples’ economic and political rights, not least their land rights, remain ignored.

The CHT Accord of 1997 was a constructive agreement between Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Bangladesh intended to resolve key issues and points of contention. It set up a special administrative system in the region. Twenty-seven years on, the major issues of the accord, including making the CHT Land Commission functional, orchestrating a devolution of power and function to the CHT’s institutions, preserving “tribal” area characteristics of the CHT region, demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, remain unsettled.


Yet another distressing year for land rights

 The situation of the land rights of Indigenous Peoples remained distressing throughout the year. Indigenous Peoples in different parts of the CHT and the plains fell victim to different forms of human rights violations centred on land. A report from the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) – a political party formed to represent Indigenous Peoples in the CHT – recorded 24 incidents in the CHT where Indigenous Peoples survived attacks and land-grabbing attempts.[5] Over 200 Indigenous persons suffered from different forms of human rights violations in these incidents, including six people killed, 18 Indigenous homes set on fire and attempts to forcibly occupy Indigenous Peoples’ lands. The report identifies the perpetrators as “communal and fundamentalist groups, Muslim Bengali settlers and land grabbers”. A report from Hill Voice claimed that several such incidents were backed by members of state security forces.[6]

In several plains districts, families belonging to diverse Indigenous Peoples experienced land-related violence as well. A report from Kapaeeng Foundation claims that at least 17 Indigenous Peoples’ land rights incidents occurred in 2023.[7] The report alleges that local (politically, socially and economically) influential Bengali persons are the perpetrators of these incidents. Several of these incidents include ongoing violence experienced by the Khasi villagers of several punjis (villages) from people (e.g. owners and staff) associated with several tea estates. This trend of using violence against Khasi villagers has been continuing for over a decade.

The CHT Land Dispute Resolution Act was formulated in 2001 and, later, a dispute resolution commission was formed to resolve land-related disputes in the CHT. However, this commission has failed to settle a single dispute to date due to the lack of authority and resources it requires. In the plains, no such safeguard mechanism exists, so a land commission for the plains has been a long-standing demand of the Indigenous Peoples. This demand, however, is yet to be realised by the government.

Violence continues toward Indigenous villagers in Lama

Lama Rubber Industries Ltd. continued its attempts in 2023 to forcibly evict Indigenous Mro and Tripura villagers of Langkom Karbari Para, Joychandra Karbari Para and Rengyen Karbari Para in Lama of Bandarban. Following a trend from the previous year,[8] the company hired over 150 agitators to carry out a violent attack on the villagers of Rengyen Karbari Para in the early hours of 2 January 2023.[9] The attackers burnt down, vandalised and plundered at least nine homes in this village.[10]

Since April 2022, when an intensification of attacks began, at least 11 efforts at forcible eviction have taken place, which include violent attacks, attempts to kill local leaders, arson, demolition and looting of homes and temples, destruction of farms and orchards, fabricated charges and poisoning of a water source of the villagers.[11] Although the National Human Rights Commission and the district administration of Bandarban made on-site visits following the 2 January incident,[12] villagers continue to live in fear of violence and eviction. During the visit, the district administration offered monetary compensation to the victims. The victims rejected the compensation, however, claiming that they wanted their ancestral lands back, not compensation.

Border road project causes devastation in the CHT

A massive border road project, stretching 1,036 km along international borders and across different parts of the CHT[13] has caused serious threats to the land rights of various Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Hundreds of families have been uprooted or negatively affected so far due to this project, with more set to suffer in the future as the implementation continues.[14]

The implementation of the border road project started on 1 January 2018 and the first phase was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) in March 2018.[15] The border road project, covering the 330-km-long international border of the CHT with India and Myanmar, along with several roads across the CHT connecting to the border road, is aimed at improving road connectivity in the CHT, enhancing border surveillance, increased patrolling of remote areas, and developing trade and tourism.[16] A major objective in this regard is to strengthen surveillance and control over insurgents and weapons smugglers active in the CHT.[17] With the approved budget of BDT 3,860.82 cores (EUR 327.62 million), the construction of the project is being led by the Army Corps of Engineers.[18]

This border project has been rapidly changing the landscape of some of the hitherto remote and untouched parts of the CHT, whose natural environment and biodiversity were very rich compared to most areas of the country. While there is no estimate of the damage to the natural environment as yet, the project’s effects on local human habitations have been disastrous so far. A report estimates that approximately 1,500 families will be either uprooted or otherwise seriously affected as a result of this project.[19] In the areas where the project is ongoing or has been completed, several hundred families have already experienced the disastrous impact of this project, as manifested in the loss of access to their homes, farms, orchards, plantations, fish ponds, schools, temples, and mosques.[20]

While the state authorities in question have violated the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples in this regard, there are allegations of the use of force and intimidation against Indigenous Peoples by state forces.[21] In many areas where the project has been or is being implemented, lands are owned and used by Indigenous Peoples following customary land management systems. However, the state representatives are claiming many such lands to be khas (State-owned) and even intimidating the local headmen[22] to acknowledge them as such.[23]

Despite such a volume of devastation caused by the project, the plan for compensation and rehabilitation of the victim families is insufficient and ambiguous. The ECNEC’s project approval paper mentions the plan to acquire 101.12 acres of land and a budget of BDT 137.15 crores (EUR 11.64 million) for this purpose.[24] However, there is no clear directive on how the land would be acquired or how the compensation and rehabilitation process would take place. While the paper completely neglects the historical complexities around land ownership and management in the CHT, this ambiguity in land acquisition has already aggravated the sufferings of the affected families. Many have either not received any compensation or have received a trivial amount compared to the volume of the damages they have experienced.[25]

4th Universal Periodic Review

In November 2023, Bangladesh was reviewed for the 4th time by the UPR Working Group in Geneva during the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Mr. Anisul Huq, attended the review session on behalf of the Bangladesh government and led the government delegation.

At least 115 Member States joined the Bangladesh UPR session and put forward recommendations targeting different human rights issues. Some of the recommendations were directly relevant to the country’s Indigenous Peoples. For example, Denmark suggested announcing a time-bound roadmap for full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord of 1997.

Other relevant recommendations included ratification of ILO Convention 169 (Mexico); recognition of the ethnic identity of Indigenous Peoples (Germany); ensuring the political participation of Indigenous Peoples (Costa Rica); ensuring the rights of marginalised peoples, including Indigenous communities; and ensuring the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and their respective religious freedom (Romania, Slovenia, Turkmenistan, Barbados, Cameroon, Ethiopia, France, Italy, Kenya, Republic of Korea). Recommendations on various cross-cutting issues, including religious freedom; torture, harassment, criminalisation, safety and security of human rights defenders; freedom of speech; violence against women and girls; shrinking civic spaces; and free, fair and participatory national election, etc. were also made by UN Member States.

Previous reviews of Bangladesh’s human rights record took place in 2009, 2013 and 2018. Unfortunately, as yet, the recommendations previously made by UN Member States to the Government of Bangladesh during these four UPR sessions have not been fulfilled.

The National Population and Housing Census 2022 (Published 2023)

The Population and Housing Census is regarded as the most significant and largest statistical activity in most countries of the world, including Bangladesh. Following Bangladesh’s independence, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducted the first Population and Housing Census in 1974. Since then, BBS has conducted six censuses, one every ten years. BBS completed the 6th and first-ever digital Population and Housing Census over the period 15-21 June 2022. However, due to a sudden flash flood, the data collection period was extended to 28 June in Sylhet, Sunamganj, Moulvibazar and Netrokona districts, following the international protocols of census.

According to the full census report, published in 2023, the total population of Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh is 1,650,478,[26] which accounts for 1% of the total population.[27] However, the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum (BIPF) estimates that Indigenous Peoples actually number more than 4 million people in the country. It is believed that the actual figure for the Indigenous population is not accurate in the national census due to the negligence of government field workers given that most Indigenous Peoples live in remote places, and field workers do not want to go there and collect data. As a result, the actual data on Indigenous Peoples remains undisclosed. This indicates that, by excluding the Indigenous Peoples from the official statistics, the government is playing a political game with them to hide their identity, deny their existence, and deprive them of government facilities.

On a positive note, the 2022 census was the first census in which data on Indigenous Peoples (Ethnic Minorities) was disaggregated by ethnicity. This happened for the first time due to the continued lobbying and advocacy of Indigenous Peoples with policymakers and the government.

ILO Convention 107

Progress in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Conventions is regularly assessed by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR), an independent body composed of legal experts who examine the application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations by ILO Member States. Bangladesh ratified ILO Convention 107 in 1972. As a party to ILO Convention 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, Bangladesh is supposed to submit progress reports periodically to the CEACR. Based on the country report, the CEACR then makes observations and informs the party to the Convention. The Government of Bangladesh did not submit a report in the last periodic cycle. However, a government delegation attended the 111th International Labour Conference Session in 2023 where observations were published.

Regarding Article 2 of the Convention and implementation of the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, the CEACR requested that the government continue taking the necessary measures to fully implement the 1997 Accord and continue to provide information in this respect, including on the sections of the agreement pending implementation and the difficulties encountered in this regard.[28]

Further, regarding Article 3 of the Convention – protection of Indigenous persons – the CEACR recalled the importance of ensuring an environment conducive to the full exercise of the rights of Indigenous and tribal populations. The CEACR urged the government:

“to take the necessary measures to protect the physical integrity of persons belonging to [I]ndigenous communities, including of those living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and to address the root causes of violence in the areas they inhabit. It also requests the Government to conduct, as a matter of urgency, thorough investigations of reported cases of intimidation, violence, including sexual violence, and disappearance of persons belonging to [I]ndigenous communities and to ensure that perpetrators are identified, prosecuted and punished. The Committee requests the Government to provide detailed information in this respect.”[29]

The Committee also made observations on different issues, including:

The Committee urges the Government to take the necessary measures to ensure the effective recognition and protection of the rights of [I]ndigenous communities over the land they have traditionally occupied, both in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the plains. … The Committee hopes that the amendments to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act will contribute to the resolution of existing land- related conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and requests the Government to provide concrete information in this regard. Finally, the Committee requests the Government to provide information on the progress made towards the adoption of a land policy and the establishment of a land commission for [I]ndigenous communities in the plains, as envisaged by the Eighth Five Year Plan.”[30]

 

 

Pallab Chakma, Executive Director, Kapaeeng Foundation. Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bablu Chakma is a human rights defender. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here

 

Notes and references

[1] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census – preliminary report 2022.” p. 10. Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2022.

[2] Barkat, Abul. “Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case of Bangladesh.” Paper presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, Dhaka, 8-10 January 2015.

[3] Halim, Sadeka. “Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis.” In “Songhati”, edited by Sanjeeb Drong, p. 72. Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, 2015.

[4] Article 23A stipulates: “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities.”

[5] PCJSS, 2 January 2024, PCJSS Annual Report of 2023 on Human Rights Situation of CHT, Rangamati.

[6] Hill Voice. “Encroachment on lands of Jumma people by Bengali settlers increases recently in hills.” 14 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/en/encroachment-on-lands-of-jumma-people-by-bengali-settlers-increases-recently-in-hills/#:~:text=Encroachment%20on%20lands%20of%20Jumma%20people%20by%20Bengali%20settlers%20increases%20recently%20in%20hills,-By&text=Hill%20Voice%2C%20July%2024%2C%202023,in%20the%20Chittagong%20Hill%20Tracts

[7] Kapaeeng Foundation, 2024, Human Rights Report 2023 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh, Dhaka.

[8] See Bangladesh, Indigenous World 2023.

[9] Kapaeeng Foundation. “Heinous attack and torching of indigenous Mro houses by Lama Rubber Industries in Bandarban.” January 5, 2023. https://kapaeengnet.org/heinous-attack-and-torching-of-indigenous-mro-houses-by-lama-rubber-industries-in-bandarban/; Sing Hai Marma, Mong. “Over a dozen Mro houses torched in Bandarban.” Asia News Network, 3 January 2023. https://asianews.network/over-a-dozen-mro-houses-torched-in-bandarban/; Sing Hai Marma, Mong. “Over a dozen Mro houses torched in Bandarban.” The Daily Star, 3 January 2023. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/over-dozen-mro-houses-torched-bandarban-3211306

[10] Kapaeeng Foundation. “Heinous attack and torching of indigenous Mro houses by Lama Rubber Industries in Bandarban.” 5 January 2023. https://kapaeengnet.org/heinous-attack-and-torching-of-indigenous-mro-houses-by-lama-rubber-industries-in-bandarban/; Sing Hai Marma, Mong. “Over a dozen Mro houses torched in Bandarban.” The Daily Star, 3 January 2023. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/over-dozen-mro-houses-torched-bandarban-3211306

[11] Kapaeeng Foundation. “Heinous attack and torching of indigenous Mro houses by Lama Rubber Industries in Bandarban.” 5 January 2023. https://kapaeengnet.org/heinous-attack-and-torching-of-indigenous-mro-houses-by-lama-rubber-industries-in-bandarban/

[12] Ibid.

[13] Asif Shawon, Ali. “First phase of Border Road to end by next year.” Dhaka Tribune, 30 January 2023. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/303915/first-phase-of-border-road-to-end-by-next-year

[14] Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (২য় পর্ব).” July 13, 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D-2/

[15] Al-Masum Molla, Mohammad. “CHT Border Road: 1,036km to pave way for surveillance.” The Daily Star, 4 December 2020. https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/cht-border-road-1036km-pave-way-surveillance-2005385; Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (২য় পর্ব).” 13 July  2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D/; Asif Shawon, Ali. “First phase of Border Road to end by next year.” Dhaka Tribune, 29 January 2024. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/303915/first-phase-of-border-road-to-end-by-next-year

[16]Asif Shawon, Ali. “First phase of Border Road to end by next year.” Dhaka Tribune, 29 January 2024. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/303915/first-phase-of-border-road-to-end-by-next-year; Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (১ম পর্ব).” 12 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D/; Al-Masum Molla, Mohammad. “CHT Border Road: 1,036km to pave way for surveillance.” The Daily Star, 4 December 2020. https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/cht-border-road-1036km-pave-way-surveillance-2005385;

[17] Al-Masum Molla, Mohammad. “CHT Border Road: 1,036km to pave way for surveillance.” The Daily Star, 4 December 2020. https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/cht-border-road-1036km-pave-way-surveillance-2005385; Rashid, Mamunur. “1,036km border road along 3 hill districts to act as security belt.” Daily Observer, 30 November 2023. https://www.observerbd.com/news.php?id=448489#:~:text=A%20border%20road%20along%20the,prevent%20cross%2Dborder%20criminal%20activities.

[18] Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (১ম পর্ব).” 12 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D/

[19] Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (২য় পর্ব).” 13 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D-2/

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hill Voice. “Headman signature taken forcibly by army constructing border road in Jurachari.” 6 April 2023. https://hillvoice.net/en/headman-signature-taken-forcibly-by-army-constructing-border-road-in-jurachari/

[22] The customary chiefs that lead the community land management process for shifting cultivation, grazing, homesteads, and common forests.

[23] Ibid.

[24]Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (১ম পর্ব).” 12 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D/

[25] Hill Voice. “উন্নয়ন আগ্রাসন: পার্বত্য চট্টগ্রামে সীমান্ত সড়ক ও সংযোগ সড়ক (২য় পর্ব).” 13 July 2023. https://hillvoice.net/bn/%E0%A6%89%E0%A6%A8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%BC%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%86%E0%A6%97%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D-2/

[26] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census – National Report (Volume I).” p. 10. Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2022. https://bbs.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/bbs.portal.gov.bd/page/b343a8b4_956b_45ca_872f_4cf9b2f1a6e0/2023-11-20-05-20-e6676a7993679bfd72a663e39ef0cca7.pdf

[27] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census – preliminary report 2022.” p. 10. Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2022. https://sid.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/sid.portal.gov.bd/publications/01ad1ffe_cfef_4811_af97_594b6c64d7c3/PHC_Preliminary_Report_(English)_August_2022.pdf

[28] ILO. “Observation (CEACR) - adopted 2022, published 111th ILC session (2023)

Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107) - Bangladesh (Ratification: 1972).” 2023. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:13100:0::NO:13100:P13100_COMMENT_ID,P13100_COUNTRY_ID:4309767,103500

[29] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census – preliminary report 2022.” p. 10. Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2022. https://sid.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/sid.portal.gov.bd/publications/01ad1ffe_cfef_4811_af97_594b6c64d7c3/PHC_Preliminary_Report_(English)_August_2022.pdf

[30] ILO. “Observation (CEACR) - adopted 2022, published 111th ILC session (2023) Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107) - Bangladesh (Ratification: 1972).” 2023. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:13100:0::NO:13100:P13100_COMMENT_ID,P13100_COUNTRY_ID:4309767,103500

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