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Vang Pao
Pao in 2004
Born 8 December 1929
Died 6 January 2011(2011-01-06) (aged 81)
Place of birth Xiangkhouang Province, Laos French Indochina
Place of death Clovis, California, U.S.
Allegiance Flag of Colonial Annam.svg French Indochina
Flag of Laos (1952-1975).svg Kingdom of Laos
Flag of the United States.svg United States of America
Service/branch Royal Lao Army
Years of service 1940s-1975
Rank Lieutenant General
Commands held GCMA Laos
"Secret Army"
Battles/wars Second Sino-Japanese War
First Indochina War
Laotian Civil War
Second Indochina War

Vang Pao (Hmong: Vaj Pov; 8 December 1929 – 6 January 2011)[1] was a Lieutenant General in the Royal Lao Army. He was a leader in the Hmong American community in the United States.

Early lifeEdit

Vang, an ethnic Hmong, was born on 8 December 1929,[2][3] in a Hmong village named Nonghet,[4] located in Central Xiangkhuang Province, in the northeastern region of Laos, where his father, Neng Chu Vang, was a county leader. Vang began his early life as a farmer until Japanese forces invaded and occupied French Indochina in World War II. His father sent him away to school from the age of 10 to 15[1] before he launched his military career, joining the French Military to protect fellow Hmong during the Japanese invasion.[citation needed]

While taking an entrance examination, the captain who was the proctor realized that Vang knew almost no written French. The captain dictated the answers to Vang so he could join the army. Vang insisted the captain gave him the answers but did not actually guide his hand on the paper. Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, said Vang did not express any embarrassment over this cheating. Fadiman added "it is worth noting that in this incident, far from tarnishing Vang Pao's reputation — as, for example Ted Kennedy's fudged Spanish exam at Harvard University tarnished his — merely added to his mythology: this was the sort of man who could never be held back by such petty impediments as rules."[5]

Military careerEdit

The term "Mèo Maquis" was originally used by Free French and Allied intelligence officers to describe the Hmong resistance forces working against the Japanese forces occupying Indochina and China during World War II. After World War II, French GCMA authorities recruited Vang as a lieutenant during the First Indochina War to combat the Viet Minh (archive video by Col. Jean Sassi). Although French forces lost the war in 1954, Vang remained in the army of the newly independent Kingdom of Laos in 1949. He was the only ethnic Hmong to attain the rank of General officer in the Royal Lao Army, and he was loyal to the King of Laos while remaining a champion of the Hmong people. During the 1960s/70s, he commanded the Secret Army, also known as the Hmong Army, a highly-effective Central Intelligence Agency-trained and supported force that fought against the Pathet Lao and People's Army of Vietnam.[6] Vang's ethnic Hmong and Laotian veterans and their refugee families who served in the U.S. "Secret Army" were eventually granted the status of political refugees by the United Nations because of persecution and genocide by the Lao Marxist government and communist Vietnam who took control in 1975. The Lao and Hmong refugees were allowed to resettle in the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Many of Vang's former veterans formed the Lao Veterans of America, Inc. and the Lao Veterans of America Institute, with offices in Fresno, California, Washington, D.C. and other locales.[7]

Vang Pao in the United StatesEdit

Vang immigrated to the United States after the communists seized power in Laos in 1975. He and his wife, May Song Vang, whom he married in 1973, initially moved first to Montana before settling in California.[8] He remained widely respected by his fellow Hmong and was an esteemed elder of the American Hmong people, many of whom experienced the war or the reprisals that followed. Though he was somewhat less influential among younger Hmong-Americans who have grown up primarily in the United States, he generally was considered an influential leader of U.S.-based Hmong, enjoying great loyalty for his position of leadership and respect for his military accomplishments.[9]

While in exile, Vang assembled other Lao and Hmong leaders from around the world to create the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNF), also known as the Lao National Liberation Movement or simply the Neo Hom, to bring attention to atrocities happening in Laos and to support the political and military resistance to the government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.[10] He was one of the eight founders of the organization in 1981, along with Prince Sisouk na Champassak, General Phoumi Nosavan and General Kouprasith Abhay.[citation needed]

Thousands of Vang's former ethnic Laotian and Hmong veterans, and their refugee families, in the United States also formed the non-profit veterans and advocacy organizations the Lao Veterans of America and the Lao Veterans of America Institute. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Vang, aided by his adviser, Philip Smith, and influential American diplomatic allies, Members of Congress, and vast numbers of Hmong-Americans, helped halt the forced United Nations-sponsored repatriation back to Laos of thousands of Laotian and Hmong refugees in Thailand. It was a major human rights victory for the Hmong and Lao community and non-profit advocacy organizations who urged an end to forced repatriation, including The Centre for Public Policy Analysis and the Lao Veterans of America.[citation needed]

Throughout Vang's residence in the U.S., the Hmong leader diplomatically opposed human rights violations by the communist government of Laos against the Hmong and Laotian people. He was invited to speak at the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, with Members of Congress, about the persecution of the Laotian and Hmong people on several occasions in the U.S. Congress from 1999-2003.[11]

From 1993-2003, Vang relied on Philip Smith for much of his efforts with policymakers in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Congress. Smith was a long-time friend of Vang Pao and many Laotian and Hmong American community leaders.[12][13] Over time, Smith was instrumental in helping Vang to meet with key Members of Congress and senior Administration officials as well as helping to organize Congressional hearings, briefings and research missions to South East Asia.[14][15] Smith, a foreign policy, human rights and legislative affairs specialist, serves as the Executive Director of the The Centre for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA), a non-profit research organization that focuses on national security and international affairs issues. In March 2011, following Vang Pao's death, Smith wrote an editorial critical of the decision to not allow him to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Smith persisted in his efforts and the CPPA, along with the Lao Veterans of America, helped organize national veterans ceremonies in May 2011 to officially honor Vang Pao at Arlington National Cemetery [16][17]

In late November 2003, Vang shocked many of his closest advisers and supporters, and began to mysteriously, and abruptly, reverse his previous position in opposition to U.S. economic sanctions against the communist government of Laos. Vang, in close cooperation with one of his highly controversial sons, Cha Vang, reversed his long-standing position and began to publicly advocate normalization of U.S.-Laotian trade relations with Laos in a highly controversial move that involved secret meetings with communist Vietnamese military and political officials and complex and questionable financial dealings involving Cha Vang and others. This created suspicion and distrust among many of Pao's supporters who quickly began to abandon Vang Pao and his new direction in support of the Lao government's foreign policy, economic and military agenda. The Lao Marxist government, and hardline Pathet Lao elements in the Lao military and government, backed by the military in Vietnam, continued to engage in military attacks and human rights violations against the Hmong in Laos.[18][19][20] Many of Vang's former veterans and their families, whose relatives were still being persecuted in Laos, opposed Vang's flip-flop on the issue of Normalized Trade Relations (NTR), or Most Favored Nation Trade Status (MFN), with Laos. This included the Lao Veterans of America, the The Centre for Public Policy Analysis and others. Following Pao's meeting with communist generals and officials from Vietnam, Vang's so-called "New Doctrine" was widely opposed by many of his closest advisers, family, supporters, and former veterans, and many in the Lao and Hmong-American community. By 2004-05, independent journalists investigating complex financial relations, ethics probes, and scandals surrounding Cha Vang and various lawsuits. Central in the controversy, scandals, and lawsuits, including one by the Minnesota Attorney General, was Cha Vang's role with the Vang Pao Foundation, a funeral home, a chamber of commerce in St. Paul, and other financial and political dealings. The Minnesota Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press reported extensively on these matters.[21][22] The Vang Pao Foundation was forced to close following investigation by authorities and a lawsuit by the attorney general of Minnestoa.[23][24][25][26][27]

Thailand-based Laotian and Hmong refugees, many of whom had been living at formal and informal refugee camps including Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist temple in Thailand, were afforded the right to avoid the forced return to Laos and instead over 15,000 were offered relocation rights and assistance to the U.S. in 2004-05.[28][29]

Alleged plot to overthrow government of LaosEdit

On 4 June 2007, following a lengthy federal investigation labeled "Operation Tarnished Eagle", warrants were issued by U.S. federal courts ordering the arrest of Vang Pao and nine others for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Pathet Lao communist government of Laos, in violation of the federal Neutrality Acts. Following the issuance of the warrants, an estimated 250 federal agents representing numerous U.S. federal law enforcement and other agencies conducted simultaneous raids on homes, offices and other locations throughout central and southern California, arresting Vang and nine other individuals.[30] The federal charges alleged that members of the group inspected weapons, including AK-47s, smoke grenades, and Stinger missiles, with the intent of purchasing them and smuggling them into Thailand, where they allegedly would be shipped to anti-Laotian governmental resistance movement forces inside Laos. The one non-Hmong person among the nine arrested, Harrison Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate and retired Army infantry officer, allegedly attempted to recruit Special Operations veterans to act as mercenaries in an invasion of Laos.[citation needed]

The Pathet Lao Marxist government Laos was engaged in serious human rights violations, including military attacks on civilians by the Lao People's Army in Laos in 2007 and prior, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Centre for Public Policy Analysis, the Lao Veterans of America, the Lao Human Rights Council, headed by Dr. Vang Pobzeb, Members of the United States Congress and others. Vietnam People's Army forces were also involved with military attacks on the Hmong people in Laos and illegal logging activities driving many Hmong from their mountain homelands.[31]

On 15 June 2007, defendants were indicted by a grand jury and an 11th man was arrested in connection with the alleged plot. The defendants face possible life prison terms for violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act and various weapons charges. Vang and the other Hmong were initially denied bail by the California federal court, which cited each of them as a flight risk. Since the 4 June 2007 federal raid, the arrests became the subject of mounting criticism. His fellow friends, including Hmong, Mienh, Lao, Vietnamese, and Americans individuals who knew Vang protested the arrests, rallying in California, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Several of Vang's high-level U.S. supporters criticized the California court that issued the arrest warrants. In 2009 all of the federal charges against Vang Pao were dropped.[citation needed]

Prior to his arrest, Vang was scheduled to have an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin named after him, a proposal that met with opposition over controversial academic Alfred W. McCoy's allegations that Vang had been involved in war crimes and drug trafficking,[32] with Gary Yia Lee and other scholars strongly disputing his claims[citation needed][33] Pao's June 2007 arrest later led the Madison School to reopen discussion on the school's naming.[34] On 18 June 2007, the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education voted to drop Vang's name from the new school, in light of the federal charges against him and the previous allegations.[35]

Release from jailEdit

On 12 July 2007, under significant pressure from Vang's Hmong and influential American supporters, the California federal court ordered the release of the Hmong leader on a US$1.5 million bond secured by property owned by members of his family. Many Hmong had participated in numerous protests over several weeks in California and elsewhere, calling for Pao's release from the date of his incarceration until his release under bail nearly a month later.[36]

Return to courtEdit

On 9 March 2009, Vang's lawyers filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charges against him. His lawyers claimed that the charges were fabricated and had no bearing in court. Following this appearance, on 6 April 2009, federal prosecutors denied all allegations of fabrications in the motion. That following month, on 11 May 2009, Vang Pao returned to federal court in Sacramento, California with his lawyers to argue the motion. Judge Frank Damrell stated, after hearing the arguments for the motion, that there was insufficient evidence from the defense to justify a dismissal.[citation needed]

Charges droppedEdit

On 18 September 2009, the federal government dropped all charges against Vang Pao, announcing in a release that the federal government was permitted to consider "the probable sentence or other consequences if the person is convicted.”[37] Vang Pao's long-time adviser and friend Philip Smith hailed the federal government's decision to drop the charges against Vang and the other accused Hmong-American defendants. Following Vang's arrest, Smith advocated in Washington, D.C. for the case to be dropped against Vang and other Hmong leaders. Smith raised repeated public concerns that the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of States, would be putting themselves and the U.S. government on trial, for its betrayal and abandonment of the Hmong people during the conclusion of the Vietnam War and its aftermath when many Hmong were killed or imprisoned by the Lao communist government that prevailed in the conflict.[38][39] At special sessions of the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, Smith and the Centre for Public Policy Analysis joined by Members of Congress, including U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and others, called on the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately drop the case, and the charges, against General Vang and the other Hmong defendants, especially in light of the Lao government's and Lao Peoples Army's (LPA) ongoing military attacks and egregious human rights violations directed against many of the Laotian and Hmong people, which included attacks on unarmed civilians and political and religious dissidents, atrocities, rape, torture and the use of mass starvation.[40][41][42][43][44] Amnesty International and other human rights organizations and experts testified about their research efforts, along with Members of Congress, including U.S. Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, at the special Congressional Forums on Laos held in the U.S. Congress and Library of Congress.[45][46][47][48][49]

Personal lifeEdit

Vang Pao reportedly had 25 children by several wives.[50]


Vang, who battled diabetes and heart disease, died at age 81 from pneumonia with cardiac complications on 6 January 2011, at Clovis Community Medical Center[1] He was admitted to the hospital on 26 December 2010, after attending Hmong New Year celebrations in Fresno. A hospital spokesman said his family was at the hospital at the time of Vang's death.[51][52][53][54]

Traditional Hmong funeral services for Vang were scheduled to be held for six days, starting 4 February 2011, at the Fresno Convention Center. More than 10,000 Hmong mourned on the first day of the funeral.[55] A committee unanimously voted against a request to bury Vang Pao at Arlington National Cemetery;[56] he was subsequently buried near Los Angeles at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.[57][58][59] In March 2011, following Vang's death, the CPPA issued an editorial, published in the Minnesota Star Tribune, critical of the decision by the U.S. Secretary of the Army not permitting Vang's burial in Arlington National Cemetery.[16] Despite the U.S. Secretary of the Army's unpopular and widely criticized decision, the CPPA, along with the Lao Veterans of America Institute, Lao Veterans of America, Inc. (LVA), and others helped to organize national veterans ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in May 2011 to honor Vang's contribution to U.S. national security efforts during the Vietnam War.[60] In May 2011, Vang's efforts during the Vietnam War were officially commemorated at memorial ceremonies in Arlington National Cemetery organized by the Lao Veterans of America Institute, LVA, the CPPA, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Special Forces Association, and others.[61] Participants at the special ceremony held at the Laos Memorial within Arlington National Cemetery included the CPPA, LVA, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of the Army, Members of the Congress, U.S. Special Forces Association, Counterparts Veterans Association and others. General Vang's son, Chong Vang, spoke at the ceremony along with Colonel Wangyee Vang, Philip Smith, Captain D.L. "Pappy Hicks", U.S. Special Forces Association, and others.[59][62]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Robert Curry (2004). Whispering Death, "Tuag Nco Ntsoov": ...Our Journey with the Hmong in the Secret War for Laos; ISBN 0-595-31809-6
  • General Vang Pao's Last War New York Times Magazine, 11 May 2008
  • Jane Hamilton-Merritt (1999 - Indiana University Press ). Tragic Mountains; ISBN 0-253-20756-8
  • Dictionary of the modern politics of South-East Asia, Michael Leifer (2001) Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0-415-23875-7, p. 287 (profile of Vang Pao)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Stephen Magagnini. "Legendary Hmong Gen. Vang Pao led his people in war, peace". 
  2. "Revered Hmong leader Vang Pao stands tall in two worlds...". 1 January 1995. 
  3. Martin, Douglas (8 January 2011). "Vang Pao, Laotian General Who Aided U.S., Dies at 81". The New York Times. 
  4. Profile on, Wisconsin Public Television. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  5. Fadiman, Anne. "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down", Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997; p. 129.
  6. The Economist, "The Montagnard Moses", 15 January 2011, p. 46.
  7. Lao Veterans of America, Inc., retrieved 3 January 2009.
  8. "May Song Vang, widow of Gen. Vang Pao, dies at 62". Fresno Bee. 2013-08-06. Retrieved 2013-09-03. 
  9. Randolph, Toni; Greta Cunningham (5 June 2007). "Hmong community reacts with alarm to charges against Vang Pao". Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved 10 June 2007. 
  10. Jane Hamilton, "Tragic mountains: the Hmong, the Americans, and the secret wars for Laos"
  11. Centre for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA); accessed 6 May 1999.
  12. New York Sun (21 September 2009)"Vang Pao Escapes"
  13. Scoop Independent News, Auckland, New Zealand (17 February 2011) "Vietnam, Laos Nationalist Fighter Honored By Lao Hmong"
  14. The Olympian, McClatchy News (11 January 2011) "Suspect in alleged Laos plot had friends, influence on Capitol Hill"
  15. Associated Press/USA Today (17 July 2007) "Hmong supporters criticize indictments"
  16. 16.0 16.1 Minneapolis Star Tribune (7 March 2011) "Vang Pao burial decision is a disgrace"
  17. Agence France Press (AFP)/Asia One News (13 May 2011)
    "Vietnam vet to get US honors after burial snub"
  18. Associated Press (3 April 2004) "Hmong Tribesmen Seek Resettlement in Laos"
  19. Associated Press (5 April 2004) "Amnesty Urges Laos to Treat Hmong Humanely"
  20. Associated Press (26 March 2004) "U.S. Secretary of State says he will talk to U.N. chief about Hmong in Laos"
  21. Paul McEnroe, Minneapolis Star Tribune (11 June 2005) "ST. PAUL; VANG PAO FOUNDATION; Chamber says money was for trade missions"
  22. P. McEnroe & Tony Kennedy. Minneapolis Star Tribune (5 July 2005) The FBI and authorities put Pao's son Cha Vang under investigation. THE COVERT WARS OF VANG PAO; Ex-guerrilla's gamble for peace backfires; With his empire unraveling, Gen. Vang Pao met with the enemy, a tactic that to his people felt like a total betrayal."
  23. McEnroe, P. & Kennedy, T., Minneapolis Star Tribune (20 April 2005) "Hatch is suing Hmong foundation; Attorney general wants to close the Vang Pao Foundation, which he says has ignored Minnesota charities laws."
  24. McEnroe, P. & Kennedy, T., Minneapolis Star Tribune (October 2005) "Hmong nonprofit must close; A settlement with Attorney General Mike Hatch shuts the door on the Vang Pao Foundation, which violated nonprofit laws"
  25. P. McEnroe. Minneapolis Star Tribune (28 May 2005) "State questions foundation checks; The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce paid more than $63,000 to the Vang Pao Foundation in 2001."
  26. P. McEnroe & Brown, Curt (27 February 2005) "Hmong project worried some from start; Mayor Randy Kelly's advisers fretted about the Vang Pao Foundation's ability to raise funds to build a funeral home, and about political fallout."
  27. P. McEnroe & T. Kennedy, Minneapolis Star Tribune (4 July 2005) "THE COVERT WAR OF VANG PAO; SECOND OF THREE PARTS; Reality gets in the way of loyalty; For years thousands of Hmong have given money to Gen. Vang Pao for what appears to be an implausible goal: Retaking Laos from the Communists"
  28. Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA)
  29. Baird, Ian G. (2012). The monks and the Hmong: The special relationship between the Chao Fa and the Tham Krabok Buddhist Temple in Saraburi Province, Thailand. In Vladimir Tikhonov and Torkel Brekke (eds.), Violent Buddhism – Buddhism and Militarism in Asia in the Twentieth Century.. London: Routledge. pp. 120–151. 
  30. "Ten Charged with Alleged Laos Plot", CNN, 4 June 2007.
  31. Smith, Philip, Center for Public Policy Analysis, Washington, D.C. (2 September 2013) "Lao Hmong Refugee Crisis"
  32. "Parents Pack Meeting To Object To New School's Name". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  33. "US WI: Sen. George Asks UW For Probe On Vang Pao". 27 April 2002. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  34. "Board To Revisit New School's Name After Hmong General's Arrest". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  35. "School Board Drops New School's Name, OKs Teacher Contract". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  36. "Pao released on bail". 13 July 2007. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  37. U.S. Drops Case Against Exiled Hmong Leader", The New York Times, 18 September 2009.
  38. Los Angeles Times (19 September 2009) "Federal charges dropped against Hmong leader Vang Pao: The exiled general was accused of plotting to overthrow the communist regime in Laos"
  39. Associated Press/USA TODAY (17 July 2007) "Hmong supporters criticize indictments"
  40. U.S. Congressional Record, US GPO (27 October 2000) "IMPORTANCE OF THE ONGOING U.S. CONGRESSIONAL FORUM ON LAOS..."
  41. Encyclopedia Britannica (1 January 2001) "Laos: Year in Review-2000"
  42. U.S. Congressional Record, U.S. Government Printing Office (24 October 2002) "Statement of the Honorable Patrick Kennedy: US Congressional Forum on Laos"
  43. Amnesty International, (6 May 2006) "Laos: Massacre of unarmed Hmong women and children"
  44. Front Page Magazine (28 February 2008) "The Two Faces of Communist Laos"
  45. PRESSZOOM (2 January 2009), U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, [ "Laos Regime Urged to Release Hakit Yang, Hmong Tortured in Vientiane Prison"
  46. U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, U.S. Congress, Centre For Public Policy Analysis,
  47. Amnesty International (6 May 2006) "Laos: Massacre of unarmed Hmong women and children"
  48. Doctors Without Borders, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (1 May 2008) "Fearing a Forced Return: The Situation of the Lao Hmong Refugees in Petchabun, Thailand"
  49. Amnesty International, (23 March 2007) "Lao People's Democratic Republic: Hiding in the jungle - Hmong under threat"
  50. Stephen Magagnini. "Hmong worldwide revere 'the General'". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 19 July 2009. 
  51. Stephen Magagnini. "Hmong leader remains in critical condition". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 6 January 2011. 
  52. Thurston, Michael. "AFP: Vietnam War 'secret army' chief dies in US hospital". Archived from the original on 10 January 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  53. Rauhala, Emily (7 January 2011). "Vang Pao, Guerilla Fighter and Hmong Leader, Dead at 81". Time Magazine.,8599,2041218,00.html. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  54. "Laos general and Hmong leader Vang Pao dies in exile". 7 January 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  55. Stephen Magagnini. "Thousands mourn Gen. Vang Pao in Fresno". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  56. Stephen Magagnini. "Vang Pao denied burial at Arlington". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 4 February 2011. [dead link]
  57. Gene Haagenson (9 February 2011). "General Vang Pao buried at Forest Lawn". Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  58. "General Vang Pao Buried in Glendale". Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  59. 59.0 59.1 "Vang Pao Gets Arlington Ceremony After Burial Snub". 13 May 2011. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  60. Agence France Press (AFP) & Asia One News, (13 May 2011) "Vietnam vet to get US honors after burial snub"
  61. Agence France Press/Asia One News (13 May 2011) "Vietnam vet to get US honors after burial snub"
  62. Steve Magagnini (13 May 2011). "Arlington ceremony honors Gen. Vang Pao". Retrieved 29 February 2012. 

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