TIME Thailand

Thai Court Says Ex-Premier to Stand Trial Over Rice Program

In this Jan. 9, 2015 photo, Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, center, appears in Bangkok, Thailand
Sakchai Lalit—AP Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appears in Bangkok on Jan. 9, 2015

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will stand trial for her role in overseeing a rice-subsidy program that lost billions of dollars

(BANGKOK) — Thailand’s Supreme Court announced Thursday that former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will stand trial for her role in overseeing a rice subsidy program spearheaded by her ousted government that lost billions of dollars, a move likely to deepen the long-running political crisis in the military-ruled nation.

Yingluck faces 10 years in prison if found guilty in the case, seen by her allies as part of an attempt by an elite minority to crush her family’s political machine, which has repeatedly won power through democratic elections over the last decade.

In a post on her Facebook page, Yingluck insisted she was innocent and called on the judiciary to give her a fair trial — unlike past cases she said were “politically intended to destroy me.”

Yingluck was ousted from her post as prime minister by a court decision that came two weeks before the military staged a coup last May. Earlier this year, she was impeached by the military-appointed legislature, which banned her from politics for five years.

On Thursday, Supreme Court Judge Weerapol Tangsuwan said that a nine-member judicial panel had studied documents submitted by prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office and accepted the case since it fell within the court’s jurisdiction. He set the trial for May 19.

Yingluck, who was not present in court, is being charged with dereliction in overseeing the controversial rice subsidy program, which temporarily cost Thailand its crown as the world’s top exporter.

The program was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party win elections in 2011, and Yingluck has argued it was aimed at helping poor farmers who were paid about 50 percent above what they would get on the world market. The program, however, racked up losses of at least $4.46 billion as the Thai government stockpiled mass quantities of rice. Prosecutors say Yingluck ignored multiple warnings from several state agencies about possible corruption — none of which has yet been proven in court.

Earlier this year, the National Anti-Corruption Commission recommended the Finance Ministry sue her personally for at least 600 billion baht ($18.4 billion).

Thailand has been plagued by political turmoil that boiled over after the army ousted Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. The putsch was part of a societal schism that in broad terms pits the majority rural poor, who back the Shinawatras, against an urban-based elite establishment supported by the army and staunch royalists who see Yingluck’s family as a corrupt threat to the traditional structures of power.

Yingluck’s opponents argue the Shinawatras have used their electoral majority to impose their will and subvert democracy.

The day Yingluck’s trial begins has significance in Bangkok. It marks the fifth anniversary of a bloody army crackdown against demonstrators backing the Shinawatras who had occupied downtown Bangkok for two months. More than 90 people were killed in the protests, which ended with parts of the city shrouded in black smoke from burning buildings.

TIME animals

Watch This Adorable Baby Elephant Have the Most Fun in a Bath Ever

It's like Dumbo before he learned to fly, only way cuter

Your dog or cat may hate bath time, but this baby elephant absolutely loves it.

In a video purportedly taken at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace & Royal Kraal in Thailand, the lumbering calf half-dives, half-falls into a tub barely big enough for him … four times.

The way he stumbles around, much to the delight of his giggling audience, makes it seem like there’s an alcoholic content to the liquid in that tub.

The little tusker even grabs the hose in his trunk and playfully runs away, but not before leaving behind a rather nasty surprise.

Read next: Watch 2 Koalas Embroiled in a Herculean Wrestling Match

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Thailand

Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra Impeached by Junta-Backed Legislature

Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets in a traditional way as she arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom —Reuters Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok on Jan. 22, 2015

The country’s first female Prime Minister is also facing criminal charges after being banned from Thai politics for five years

Thailand’s military-stacked legislature voted en masse on Friday to impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed through a court ruling days before the kingdom’s armed forces launched a full-scale putsch on May 22.

The junta-backed National Legislative Assembly voted by a margin of 190 to 18, with 11 absentions, to impeach Thailand’s first female Premier over a controversial rice-pledging scheme her administration passed after her landslide victory at the polls in 2011.

However, the ill-fated plan, which paid farmers above market prices for their crop regardless of quality, backfired and blew a $15 billion hole in the Thai economy.

On Thursday, Yingluck derided her impending impeachment and accompanying five-year banishment from the kingdom’s political landscape as a violation of her “basic rights,” during an address to the country’s Parliament.

The 47-year-old has kept a low profile since General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power and launched an unprecedented campaign to bridle dissent and quell a half-year of polarizing, and often deadly, street demonstrations.

Following Friday’s vote, analysts say the political persecution of Yingluck and her supporters will likely calcify the ever widening divide in the country between the rural and working-class masses, who largely back the populist Shinawatra political machine, and the royalist establishment based in Bangkok.

“They are trying to ban these people from politics for as long as they can so that there’s basically no opposition to whatever the military junta and its allies are going to do politically for the foreseeable future,” Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political analyst and popular blogger, tells TIME.

Yingluck also faces a maximum of 10 years in prison after the country’s attorney general pledged Friday to indict her for negligence and abuse of power over the same botched rice scheme.

The impeachment and imminent criminal prosecution of Yingluck now runs the risk of enraging the Shinawatra clan’s partisan supporters, better known as the Red Shirts, who have remained largely dormant in the wake of the coup and its accompanying crackdown.

“This will only exacerbate the political schism we have right now,” says Saksith.

Thailand has been bogged down in unceasing episodes of political discord since Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was first removed from power during a bloodless coup almost a decade ago. Political parties deemed loyal to Thaksin have been deposed through two putsches and three controversial court decisions since 2001, despite being undefeated at the polls.

“Today Yingluck joins her brother as another ‘undying political martyr,'” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Thai legal expert and visiting scholar at the University of London, by email. “While the Shinawatra camp may face some difficulties in the coming years, it has now become even more difficult for millions of Thai people to move beyond them.”

TIME Thailand

Tourists Are Reporting a Dramatic Surge in Harassment by Thai Police

A tourist policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khao San road in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters A policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khaosan Road in Bangkok on Jan. 19, 2012

The Land of Smiles? How about the Land of Shakedowns?

Mastercard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index recently ranked Bangkok as the second most visited destination in the world after London. Spend a few days this hedonistic metropolis and you’ll soon understand why, for it offers an almost unbeatable mix of culture, edgy nightlife, cheap shopping, comfortable hotels, warm weather and — who can say no? — Thai cuisine.

But since the May 22 coup d’état that saw the ouster of a democratically elected government and martial law declared across the country, many tourists and expatriates in Bangkok have fallen prey to a criminal practice. The victims have little recourse when reporting incidents to the police, because the perpetrators are police officers.

“If you go to Sukhumvit Road, you can see the police looking for tourists who are smoking or drop a cigarette butt, then they ask them for their passport and make them pay 2,000 baht [just over $60]. I see this happening all the time,” says anticorruption politician Chuwit Kamolvisit.

“[And] when the tourists come out of Soi Cowboy [a notorious red-light area], the police ask them if they’ve had drugs and then make them do a pee test on the side of the road. If they don’t want to do the pee test, they have to pay 20,000 baht [about $610].”

Being a former brothel owner, Chuwit’s word isn’t exactly gospel in Thailand. But his claims are apparently corroborated by dozens if not hundreds of first-person reports in the form of local newspaper articles, complaints to embassies, blogs and social-media postings. Some believe that the coup, by disrupting traditional avenues for corruption, has forced aberrant police officers to look for new targets.

On Dec. 10, British Ambassador Mark Kent tweeted, “Met Tourism Minister this morning. Covered range of issues, including reports of stop and search in Bangkok.”

The Twitter feed of Joe Cummings, the former Lonely Planet author who practically ​put Thailand on the backpacker map, is riddled with stories detailing police harassment and extortion. “Random police searches of foreigners in BKK is getting bad,” reads a typical entry dated Dec. 6. “Many reports of innocent tourists forced to pay bribes.”

Then there’s this scathing letter to the editor by tourist Reese Walker published Nov. 29 in the Bangkok Post: “Stopped, frisked and searched. When we asked what reason was for the search, police simply laughed at us. The police even asked my fiance to perform a urine test on the side of the road … [We] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Walker’s letter gives me a real sense of déjà vu because when I was assignment in Bangkok last month, I too became the victim of a police shakedown.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the upstairs area of a terrace bar in the Silom Road area having a late-night drink. At around 2 a.m. I called it a night and descended to the ground floor. There I saw half a dozen police officers searching the premises and interrogating the bartender, who was handcuffed on a chair. An officer detained me straight away. “What’s going on?” I asked, identifying myself as a journalist.

He made a menacing fist at me, which convinced me to pipe down.

About 15 minutes later, another police officer produced a bag of white powder, shook it near my face and accused me of buying it. I emphatically denied the claim. Meanwhile, other police officers began helping themselves to drinks from the bar. When the bartender protested, they kicked him in the shins.

Eventually, a police officer took me outside where a Thai woman told me if I paid the equivalent of $15,200, I would be released. I told her I hadn’t done anything and would not pay a cent. I was taken back inside, where officers had now detained another four Westerners present at the bar. They then took all five of us in taxis to a nearby police station without a word of explanation.

Over the next four hours we were individually forced to undergo urine tests for drugs, during which a policeman standing guard in the lavatory taunted me by saying, “You cocaine.” Images from popular books and a TV series on the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison penitentiary, the so-called Bangkok Hilton, flashed through my mind.

Next we were taken to a media room with powerful fluorescent lights. Exhausted and disheveled, having not slept the entire night, and with our urine samples lined in front of us, we were photographed in a setting that made us look guilty as sin.

Some time after dawn we were presented with a typed document — in Thai — and told to sign it. At this, I drew a line and demanded to speak with the Australian embassy. Only then did our tormentors back down, casually informing us we’d all passed our drug tests and would be released — if only we signed on the dotted line. I did so, but I also scribbled, “This is not my signature” on the document before walking back onto the steamy streets of Bangkok at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, traumatized but elated to be free.

During my detention, I identified myself as a journalist many times and asked for an explanation. None was given to me. After my release, I wrote to the official email address of the Thai police, but it bounced back. I copied half a dozen other government agencies, including the Australian embassy in Bangkok, which is supposed to have a police-liaison unit, but the only reply I got was from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which said the following:

“The Royal Thai Government and the Royal Thai Police have no such policy to detain, harass, abduct, threaten and drug test Western tourists in Thailand. On the contrary, the Royal Thai Government recognizes the huge importance of tourism and safety for all foreign tourists is an on-going priority for the country.”

One would think that would be the case. Tourism receipts and indirect tourism activity account for 15% of Thailand’s GDP — making it the largest sector in the economy. So why would police be allowed to make omelets from Thailand’s golden eggs?

The most popular theory is that low-ranking street cops, some of whom earn as little as $1 an hour, are seeking out new sources of income, because the military-led government has begun cracking down on the street vendors who were the former targets of police shakedowns. Foreigners make convenient prey because they can be intimidated and, compared with the local population, are relatively wealthy.

“This explanation says the takeover has placed the police, traditionally at odds with the military, in some sort of frenzy amidst proposed restructuring that is likely to deeply disrupt the way the police have operated — both formally and informally,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut.

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar based in Japan who has had his passport revoked for criticizing the military-led government, thinks the practice has, paradoxically, a social-order element to it. Demanding random drug tests from some tourists, or asking for cash for a dropped cigarette butt, the thinking goes, shows other tourists that Thailand’s new rulers want to shed some of the seedier aspects of the country’s image abroad.

“The coup makers came with a mission. And that mission is to rebuild an orderly and clean society,” Pavin says. “They believe that by appearing to be serious about cleaning up society and creating an orderly atmosphere, it will attract more tourists. They even bizarrely announced a new campaign, Tourism and Martial Law, to promote the idea that society under martial law is pleasant.”

He adds: “It will not work, because they don’t understand either the logic of tourists or indeed the economy of tourism.”

Bangkok may have had 16.42 million visitors last year. But that number is down nearly 2 million compared with the previous year, with the drop attributed to the declining ruble and corresponding fall in the number of Russian tourists. Increased fear of flying in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies has been proffered as another reason, as has general uncertainty about the coup. If action isn’t taken to rein in the Thai police, tourist numbers may fall further still.

Read next: Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

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TIME Thailand

Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

THAILAND-LABOUR-RIGHTS-MIGRATION-FISHING
Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images This picture taken on Sept. 20, 2013, shows fish in crates after they were unloaded from a trawler at a port in Pattani, southern Thailand

The Thai government wants to send chain gangs to sea

Dozens of labor and human-rights groups have condemned a plan by the Thai junta to use prison labor on fishing boats, which are already notorious for violence, human trafficking and slavelike conditions.

The coalition of 45 international organizations has penned an open letter to Thai army chief Prayut Chan-ocha, who has run the Southeast Asian nation since staging a coup d’état on May 22, urging him to end a pilot project that sends prisoners out to sea. Much of the fish, shrimp and shellfish caught ends up on dinner tables in the U.S. and Europe.

“Thailand cannot run from the trafficking problem in its fishing fleet,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, one of the signatories. “And sending prisoners to sea will not address the systematic, pervasive labor problems in Thailand’s fishing industry.”

Currently, migrant workers from Burma (officially known as Myanmar) and Cambodia comprise the bulk of workers on Thai fishing vessels. Systemic abuses have been widely documented with many workers receiving little or no pay, getting traded from boat to boat so they never see land for years, and, in the very worst cases, simply tossed into the sea when they inevitably fall ill.

“Thailand has repeatedly said that it’s committed to end forced labor and human trafficking, but this pilot project heads in precisely the opposite direction and will make things worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who also said the initiative “should be immediately scrapped.”

TIME celebrity

Looks Like Beyoncé and Blue Ivy Got to Hang Out With a Tiger Cub

And animal rights advocates are not happy with the photo

Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue #Thailand

A photo posted by Beyoncé (@beylite) on

In a viral photo that is bound to make anyone who just got back from holiday vacation jealous, it looks like Jay Z, Beyoncé, their toddler daughter Blue Ivy, spent quality time with a tiger cub at the Phuket FantaSea theme park in Thailand.

The above image, which recently appeared on an Instagram account for Beyoncé fans “@Beylite“, may seem like a cute family bonding moment, but it has already stirred controversy.

The London Evening Standard reports Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a wildlife expert for animal welfare charity World Animal Protection, argues, “A tiger is not a plaything,” so animals’ “health and well-being should not be sacrificed for a photo opportunity.”

TIME Thailand

The Draconian Legal Weapon Being Used to Silence Thai Dissent

THAILAND-CRIME-POLITICS-ROYALS-RIGHTS
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images Thai university student Patiwat Saraiyaem, center, is escorted by prison officials as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok on Oct. 27, 2014

Thailand's lèse majesté laws are supposed to protect the royal family from defamation, but in practice they are being used as a vicious political tool

Barefoot and shackled at the ankles, two Thai student activists shuffled into court this week to plead guilty to insulting the nation’s monarch by staging a play about an fictitious king.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Pornthip Munkong, 25, face up to 15 years in jail under Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, considered the world’s harshest.

The laws are ostensibly protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family from defamatory slurs, but are in practice used in vendettas and as a political tool.

The offending content of the play, The Wolf Bride, has not been made public, but it was performed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest at Thammasat University that was brutally crushed by the then military government in October 1973.

“My boy did not intend to insult the monarchy, he is just an actor,” Patiwat’s father Aiyakan Saraiyaem told news agency AFP outside the court.

Held in custody since their arrests, both students were denied bail, and pleaded guilty in an attempt to avoid further jail-time.

The case is indicative of spiraling political prosecutions in Thailand exacted through lèse majesté, otherwise known as Article 112. In recent years, a bevy of academics, politicians, journalists and even a 61-year-old grandfather have fallen foul of this law. And it has almost nothing to do with safeguarding the Thai monarchy.

It is “political weaponry in the guise of a legal system,” says Jakrapob Penkair, a former Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, who was accused of lèse majesté over a speech he gave at Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club that rebuked the nation’s culture of royal patronage. “It encourages people to go berserk.”

This is because lèse majesté cases can be brought by any Thai citizen — no matter what country they reside in, and at any time, against any other individual, Thai or foreign. (Criminal cases, by contrast, are typically brought by a department of public prosecutions.)

This Orwellian culture is fostered by the state. During the tenure of former Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was in power from 2008 to 2011, he appeared on huge billboards asking citizens to “protect the monarchy” by reporting those whom defamed the institution.

And so the vast majority of lèse majesté cases are brazenly political or spurred by personal grudges. Last week, for example, the Democrat Party’s legal advisor filed lèse majesté charges against Suda Rangkupan, a former Chulalongkorn University lecturer and supporter of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for wearing the color black during December, the month of King Bhumibol’s birth. (Thais traditionally wear his birthday color of yellow out of respect.)

Preposterous as these charges plainly are, most Thais are afraid of, and conditioned against, speaking out. Thai journalists cannot report on cases freely without putting themselves at risk of prosecution, while courtiers appears to be immune.

“Rational Thais who respect the monarchy no less than the rest are becoming more aware that lèse majesté law is enforced to protect a few privileged commoners lurking around the palace at the expense of the institution itself,” Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained Thai lawyer who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of London, tells TIME.

Sometimes, an indirect connection with the cause of offense is sufficient. When Ekachai Hongkangwan was arrested in 2012 for peddling pirated copies of an Australian documentary about the Thai monarchy, the fact that that the material was essentially accurate, and that he had no part in its creation, was no defense.

“Because,” Judge Aphisit Veeramitchai explained to the court, “if it is true, it is more defamatory; and if it isn’t true, then it’s super defamatory.” Ekachai was jailed for three and a half years.

Little wonder most people accused of Article 112 either apologize or meekly claim to be misunderstood, rather than attack the lèse majesté laws in the first place. This ensures that there is no public debate on the law.

The scope of lèse majesté has also flourished contrary to the expressed wishes of King Bhumibol. During his birthday speech in 2005, the monarch said, “Actually, I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the king cannot be criticized, it means that the king is not human. If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong.”

Article 112 is typically deployed with politically expedient timing, rather than at the time of the supposed offense. The former minister Jakrapob made his offending speech eight months before charges were laid; students Patiwat and Pornthip performed their play in October 2013, but were only arrested this past August.

“It’s not about your action, it’s about the timing,” says Jakrapob. “They wait until the moment when you seem most vulnerable.”

So why are students being targeted now? Since Thailand’s latest military coup of May 22, opposition to the new junta government has been brutally quashed. Yet, in recent months, students have become emboldened as public dissatisfaction grows over a slew of scandals, and have displayed great daring by even publicly heckling dictator Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

“They are using the youngsters as an example,” says Jakrapob of the latest charges, “to say that regardless of your age or social background, we will not hesitate.”

And so as protests increase, lèse majesté has followed suit. A study published November by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights noted 18 cases since the generals seized power, usually tried through fast-track kangaroo courts. These include a radio show host jailed for five years, and a 24-year-old student jailed for two-and-a-half years for posting a Facebook message under a pseudonym. On Wednesday, Internet providers were granted sweeping new powers to remove any content verging on lèse majesté. The junta even pursues those who have fled overseas.

It appears the Thai establishment wants to silence dissent before the delicate time of succession approaches. King Bhumibol is the world’s richest monarch, worth an estimated $30 billion, but is 87 years old and ailing. Many ascribe Thailand’s festering political travails to the wrangling for control of this vast fortune before Bhumibol passes on the crown.

This has already been reflected in the purges of powerful policemen connected to the recently jilted wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, using, among other charges, lèse majesté. The military must maintain a vice-like grip on power to ensure the succession takes place as its powerful backers wish.

“At this very delicate time of transition, they cannot afford to give an inch to anyone,” says Jakrapob, “and the young people worry them.”

TIME Malaysia

Flooding Kills 24 in Malaysia and Thailand

Flood situation worsens in north-east Malaysia
Azhar Rahim—EPA An aerial view of a settlement submerged by floodwaters in the Pengkalan Chepa district of Kelantan, Malaysia, Dec. 28, 2014.

Nearly 160,000 have been left homeless since the flooding began

Flooding in Malaysia and Thailand has killed 24 people and left nearly 160,000 homeless since mid-December, in the deadliest regional flood season in a decade, according to recent reports.

Malaysian authorities said the rain is expected to last at least another week, Reuters reported.

The death total includes 10 in Malaysia and 14 in Southern Thailand.

The news comes as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited sites of the flooding following his return from Hawaii on Friday. Razak had been criticized for playing golf with U.S. President Barack Obama during the floods.

[Reuters]

TIME Thailand

See Personal Possessions of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Victims

Ten years after the devastating tsunami killed more than 227,000 people, possessions of some victims found in a shipping container are arranged to be photographed outside a police station in Phang Nga province, Thailand on Dec. 19, 2014

TIME

The Most Powerful Protest Photos of 2014

There wasn't a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson to the student camps of Hong Kong

In 2011, TIME named the Protester as the Person of the Year, in recognition of the twin people-power earthquakes of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. TIME named the Ebola Fighters as the 2014 Person of the Year, but you could have forgiven if we went back to the Protester. There wasn’t a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the squares of Mexico City, to the impromptu student camps of Hong Kong. Many of the protests were remarkably peaceful, like Occupy Hong Kong, which was galvanized by public anger over the overreaction of the city’s police. Others turned bloody, like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, which eventually brought down the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in turn triggering a war that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in May and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians.

Not every protest was as effective as those that began the year in the cold of Kiev. Hong Kongers still don’t have full democratic rights, gay rights are on the retreat in much of east Africa and every day seems to bring news of another questionable police killing in the U.S. But the wave of social action that ended 2014 is unlikely to crest in 2015. The ubiquity of camera phones means no shortage of iconic photographs and videos from any protest, whether in Lima or Los Angeles, and social media gives everyone the means to broadcast. What follows are some of the most powerful images from the global streets in 2014.

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