2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Thauk gya paw hee thwi deh thwi
(Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower) —
drama of insurgency in a Burmese Pwo Karen Film
by Violet Cho
Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower (dir. Thong Eh Poung, 2009) is a film produced in association with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a former Burmese ethnic Karen insurgent group allied with the country’s now transformed ruling military dictatorship. In the film, the DKBA are portrayed as people who want to bring development, safety and stability to the Karen public. They are represented as helping to maintain an unspecified idea of Karen culture and traditions. DKBA soldiers symbolize modernity and cosmopolitanism, while at the same time suitably respecting tradition. This is not how I was brought up to view them.
Backdrop of insurgency
Contemporary ethnic conflict in Burma is rooted in colonial history. The British administration used tactics of divide and rule, separating Burman majority areas of central Burma from ethnic minority areas in the periphery, which meant that social and political developments were disjointed, creating significant divisions before independence (Callahan 2009). Ethnic minority groups such as the Karen were given preferential treatment by the British in the armed forces and bureaucracy, creating tension with the majority Burman population. Burma went through a divisive struggle during World War 2, which saw key Burman independence leaders fighting with the Japanese against the British who fought with support from some ethnic minority people including elements of the Karen population. An unstable union was negotiated in order to secure independence, but there was considerable dissent from some ethnic factions, notably Karen, at the way the new state was structured. Independence was granted in 1948, Burma became a new democracy, and the country descended into civil war, involving both communist and ethnic minority insurgencies, with the Karen National Union (KNU) being a major political and military force.
The KNU organized themselves at the vanguard of Karen nationalism and representatives of the Karen people. However, the term “Karen” itself is problematic with numerous contested meanings. It can refer to any of approximately twenty different languages as well as religious groupings and constructed concepts of “nation” and “unity.” Those falling under the term “Karen” are probably the second or third biggest ethnic group in Burma, with substantial numbers in Thailand also although numbers are disputed. The two most-widely spoken Karen languages are S’gaw and Pwo, although these terms also refer to a number of dialects and scripts. Formal Karen politics has traditionally been dominated by S’gaw-speaking Christians, a legacy of British colonialism. This is a key source of internal Karen conflict since Christians possibly only represent around 10-20 percent of the Karen population (South 2010: 65-6).
It is the Christian Karen that are also most commonly represented in the West as the victims in a melodrama where the villain is the idolatrous Burmese army and the hero can be any combination of missionaries, mercenaries, foreign aid groups and KNU forces. Rambo IV is a recent example: Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) and his mercenary colleagues go into Burma to rescue a group of “Western” missionaries held captive by the Burmese army. Karen suffering is a backdrop—a group of Karen are freed from an evil army unit along with the missionary captives but Karen emancipation is just momentary. The missionaries return to the safety of the West while the Karen villagers who survive the slaughter are of course left behind. Andrew Selth calculates the slaughter at 236 dead in the film’s 91 minutes, “justified on the grounds that Burma’s military government has absolutely no redeeming features and its evil servants therefore deserve everything they get from the eponymous hero [Rambo]” (2008: 2). I can’t count how many of these 236 dead might be Karen—many Karen body extras are sacrificed in order to cast Burma’s military as sufficiently evil in the film. The Karen in the film are represented as Christian and moral and no doubt the oppression of the Karen as Christian adds to the typecasting of the military as “evil servants.”
The KNU, and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), remained a considerable military and political force until early 1995, when there was a major split. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) emerged from the KNU, striking a “devastating blow” to the Karen cause (Charney 2009: 188). The main language used by the DKBA is Eastern Pwo Karen and, as their name suggests, they are predominantly Buddhist. They attempt to construct an alternative to the S’gaw Christian nationalism propagated by the KNU. They can be better characterized as a fragmented network rather than a unified organization—as they “lack a coherent command and control structure” (South 2010: 66).
After the 1995 split, the DKBA verbally agreed to a ceasefire with Burma’s ruling military dictatorship. The ceasefire was one of a wave of similar agreements the Burmese military negotiated with insurgent groups in the 1990s. The agreements gave insurgent groups some autonomy in areas where they were fighting, the right to hold arms and importantly, the freedom to pursue economic development, trade and the extraction of natural resources, as well as the provision of limited health and education. In return, DKBA and other ceasefire groups had to regularly work as a proxy force for the Burmese military, supporting offensives against their former comrades. Military offensives notoriously involve human rights abuses including forced portering, extrajudicial killings and extortion. DKBA troops have also perpetrated grave human rights abuses against civilians in areas under their control, including forced displacement and forced labor. [open endnotes in new window] While the DKBA was formally disbanded and incorporated into the Border Guard Force in 2010, DKBA brigade five split and remain in conflict, under the name DKBA. The KNU signed an initial peace agreement with the Burmese Government in January 2012. They still hold arms and negotiations are ongoing for a lasting peace.
Karen language cinema
Film’s produced for entertainment in Pwo Karen language are not produced commercially, but rather made by individuals and civil society groups, often with the stated interests of preserving Karen language and heritage. The DKBA has been engaged in the promotion of Pwo Karen language, Buddhist and animist religions and a particular interpretation of “Karen” culture. Members of the DKBA have worked with local individuals and production groups, to engage in feature filmmaking, music video production and the recording of events such as Karen Martyr’s Day and Karen New Year. The production of Pwo Karen language cinema is not centralized—filmmakers and production groups are located around the state, notably in Hpa’an, the capital of Karen State; Shwe Ko Ko, one of the major former DKBA bases; and Thamanya, an important Buddhist site. Films are formally authorized and censored by the state level Karen Literature and Cultural Development Association, under the Karen State government. The person in charge of approving the release of Pwo Karen film is based in Yangon, so filmmakers have to travel out of the state in order to gain permission. This means that productions do not need permission from the national Motion Picture Censor Board, which tightly regulates the Burmese language cinema industry. The Karen Literature and Cultural Development Association approves films for production and release based on three guidelines:
Members of DKBA are entwined with local producers in townships where they have authority. Since cultural production has been formally autonomous from the DKBA, these personal links are likely to persist, despite the DKBA’s transformation into the Border Guard Force.
Growing up in areas under KNU control, I saw the DKBA as traitors and opportunists. I couldn’t comprehend why they would befriend their enemy, the Burmese military regime. I still vividly remember my first direct and terrifying experience of the DKBA. I was 13 years old living in Huay Kaloke refugee camp on the Thai border. One night, the DKBA, along with Burmese government troops, attacked our camp, shooting and setting fire to houses. There were causalities, including some of my school friends. Our house, along with most others in the camp, was burnt down. Out of the family belongings that were destroyed, those I miss the most are my childhood photographs.
While these actions are difficult to forgive, DKBA leaders argue that they work for a noble cause. For the DKBA, film and music videos have been key media to communicate their history, legitimacy and program. It was common to see DKBA leaders allied with celebrities, including Karen and, surprisingly, non-Karen actors, models and singers of national prominence in Burma. The use of Burmese celebrities is a clever strategy the DKBA used to organize Karen publics and spread their message, in a more appealing way than solely relying on military parades and speeches. It also provides DKBA leaders with a sort of celebrity “power.” VCDs of music videos, films and mass ceremonies are then sold and shared throughout eastern Burma, the Thai borderlands and to diaspora communities beyond.
Within the insurgent landscape that I grew up in, video was also used as an important medium for propaganda. A number of activist groups within areas under KNU authority engage in film production for advocacy (that might be labeled propaganda by the enemy), including documentary, music videos and feature films. Karen media organizations such as Kaw Lah, Kwekalu and Burma Issues have been using documentary as a tool to represent and record the systemic human rights abuses suffered by those living in conflict areas by the Burmese army and DKBA (while the KNLA also commit human rights abuses, they are rarely reported in public). Documentary films produced by exiled Karen groups have a clear political agenda and often a different audience to those produced inside the country. Many short documentaries, especially those produced by Burma Issues, are made for an international audience and involve English voiceover and/or subtitles. One important aim of exiled film groups is to achieve a wider recognition of Karen suffering and as a strategy to push for broader political change in Burma. In addition, S’gaw Karen language feature films are produced for politically-tinged entertainment, often filmed in refugee camps and distributed within communities of displaced Karen. S’gaw language films have reached a larger diasporic audience through online distribution on YouTube and some S'gaw Karen filmmakers, notably Chelly, have become celebrities within dissident communities. Exiled films on the whole carry messages, either direct or subtle, against the Burmese government and their allies, and therefore stand in direct opposition to Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower.
Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower
Living on the Thai border in my late teens, I tried to watch DKBA propaganda films a couple of times but I didn’t have the energy to finish seeing them. Too many bitter memories and low production quality. As time has passed, and production values have improved, I made another attempt at looking at DKBA-related cinema. In the past years, I have been involved in exiled journalism myself, writing strategically against the regime. Leaving the political polarization of Burmese exile in Thailand for Australia, I found I could see Pwo Karen film from a new standpoint. Film allows for a new means of representing the war in Burma, and illuminates the different and conflicting layers of Karen identity. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower, the film I am going to discuss, is made by and about Karen people, thus being a rare form of cinematic self-representation, as well as a form of propaganda. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower, the film I am going to discuss, is made by and about Karen people, thus being a rare form of cinematic self-representation, as well as a form of propaganda, for an ethnicity where creative space is limited. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower is produced by the Thamanya Happy and Beautiful Literature Group, one of the most active in Pwo Karen cinema production. The majority of films produced in exile for local audiences are in S’gaw rather than Pwo language. My family is a mix of Pwo and S’gaw speakers and I speak both of these Karen languages. Watching a film in Pwo language speaks to an important part of myself, like listening to my grandfather, and it provides me with a sense of connection to a place that was once my home.
Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower starts with a romantic narrative involving Kyaw Thwi Paing (Full Blood) and Pu Shu. Kyaw Thwi Paing is the estranged son of Su Thwi (which literally means Mr. Nation’s Blood) a former KNU sergeant who defected to the DKBA and became a lieutenant. Kyaw Thwi Paing and Pu Shu live in the same area and are attracted to each other—however their relationship does not develop because of Kyaw Thwi Paing’s hesitation to make his feelings known and Pu Shu’s adherence to the cultural practice of not making a first move. Some time passes and Pu Shu falls into severe hardship after her mother loses all of their assets betting on the lottery. After moving to another village, Kyaw Thwi Paing realizes that he loves Pu Shu so he returns and they have an emotional reunion and confess their love for each other. Kyaw Thwi Paing soon has to leave to work in another area and they promise each other that they will loyal, life-long lovers.
The focus shifts to the father, Su Thwi, who receives a letter from his former lover Paw Hee (meaning Beautiful Flower), who he had not heard from for over twenty years. She writes to tell him that he has a son, who is already a young adult. Shocked, he immediately goes to their village to meet Kyaw Thwi Paing for the first time. Su Thwi brings his adopted daughter with him and the four of them sit down under the shade of a mango tree. Su Thwi appears full of happiness knowing he has a son, but this is tempered by his need to disclose “the truth” about his life. He tells his daughter to be strong and then begins the story of what has happened to him since leaving Pee Hee. This begins an extended flashback that takes up a large part of the film.
The story starts with Su Thwi traveling in the jungle, heartbroken and confused after learning that Paw Hee was forced into an arranged marriage. On the way back to his village, he came across a group of KNU soldiers. He started chatting with them and then requested to join, more out of despair for Paw Hee than a commitment to nationalist ideology. In this way, Mr. Nation’s Blood is similar to a number of KNU soldiers I know, who fight without a strong ideological position.
In the next scene, there is a dramatic montage of gunfire. It is not clear which soldiers belong to the KNU and which belong to the Burmese government. Some shots are darkened with black borders, presumably intended to evoke the horror of war without clearly taking sides. By showing ambiguous battle scenes like this, the filmmaker avoids both confrontation with the Burmese military government and demonizing KNU soldiers. If they clearly showed fighting between the KNU and Burmese military in a way that was sympathetic to KNU soldiers, it could endanger their relationship with the Burmese government. By not taking the Burmese government’s side, it could even be interpreted as a subtle attack on the Burmese dictatorship.
The next scene shows Su Thwi injured in a KNU field hospital being treated by Eh Hser (Sweet Love), a sexy, passionate and militant KNU medic, S’gaw Karen speaking, who becomes his new love interest.
We learn that after seven years of working with the KNU, Su Thwi is fed up with war and the daily poverty he encounters amongst Karen villagers in eastern Burma He struggles with his desire of wanting to help people and to keep fighting for some sort of liberation, while seeing the futility of his involvement with the KNU. He first expresses this in a scene where Su Thwi is sitting beside a well washing his face. The camera frames him, foregrounding a landscape of banana trees in an overgrown garden. One of his comrades walks into view and sits on the edge of the well. The camera zooms in on both men:
Su Thwi’s comrade: I have an important message to tell you.
Mr. Nation’s Blood dries his face with a towel and then turns to his friend:
Su Thwi: Tell me what you’re going to say.
Comrade: I heard that a faction of KNU Brigade 7 went back to Done Yaung (an area near the state capital, Pa’an).
Su Thwi: What do you think of what’s happening?
Comrade: I don’t know. Even if I have an opinion, I don’t dare say it.
Su Thwi: If you don’t dare to say it, listen to me.
Mr. Nation’s Blood looks away, in a contemplative stare into the horizon. The camera zooms in, framing his face.
Su Thwi: I’m tired of fighting. If the war goes on like this forever, it would be like we are fighting against our own blood and gouging out our own eyes. Let me tell you something.
Mr. Nation’s Blood leans in to whisper something indistinguishable into his comrade’s ear.
This powerful scene sets out Su Thwi’s desire to also desert from the KNU. It emphasizes his noble intentions—that he would leave the KNU as a sacrifice for the “nation’s” suffering and that he is brave enough to make his intentions known. It also brings up a motif running through the film about blood and sacrifice, which is also a key feature of Karen (and other) ethno-nationalisms. Blood and sacrifice is again evoked in an emotional scene when Mr. Nation’s Blood confronts his military superiors with his intention to leave.
Mr. Nation’s Blood is called in to see his KNLA commander who had already heard that he intends to leave. The commander is in a simple wooden hut, with a dirt floor. The scene evinces nationalist iconography—the commander is wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with a picture of KNU founder Saw Ba U Gyi, with a Karen flag in the background. The first of Saw Ba U Gyi’s four “guiding principles” for Karen struggle is “surrender is out of the question.” On the side of the wall, there is a calendar bearing the face of former KNU President Bo Mya. Su Thwi walks in and salutes his commander. The camera pans around to frame the two men. The commander orders Su Thwi to sit and starts lecturing him about his traitorous intentions and questioning his plan. Su Thwi thoughtfully responds:
Su Thwi: Because of war and fighting, our people’s blood is flowing and their flesh is covering the ground so I want to stop fighting.
Commander: You are a soldier. You’re fed up with the war? I’ve been fighting for 40 years and I’ll never give up until I reach my goal and destination.
Su Thwi: I have a different idea. I want to give my blood and flesh to a different cause. I want to go back into town for the sake of the re-emergence of Karen literature and culture. I also want to help villagers to have peace and stability in their lives and to be able to live peacefully in their home without having to move all the time. I really want to give myself and help them with my own hands.
The KNU Commander looks defeated: OK. For the sake of Karen literature and culture and Karen people, if you want to go, I won’t stop you. You can go.
The commander turns away from Su Thwi. The camera zooms in on the commander’s face as he shouts, “Go!’
This key scene is an acknowledgement of a certain degree of understanding and cooperation that exists between the two armed groups. I was surprised to see such a humane representation of the KNU. I have heard stories of deserters being killed on both sides and they could have easily made the story more conflictual. Instead the film shows the very real human relationships and difficult personal and political loyalties within the civil war. Scenes like this, which I think echo the complex realities of the conflict, make the propaganda message of the film more convincing. Despite occasional tough rhetoric and combat, members of Karen armed factions have had a fair degree of local autonomy and political, personal and economic ties continue, independent of attempts at centralized control.
Further dialogue around the politics of accommodation with the Burmese state takes place the night before Mr. Nation’s Blood defects. He explains his plans to Eh Hser, in a dramatic scene. It's nighttime and we can hear frog and insect sounds. Mr. Nation’s Blood sits on a hammock cleaning his pistol and a dim light shines on his body. Eh Hser walks into the scene looking upset. Su Thwi looks very happy to see Eh Hser and he pulls up a chair for her. The two sit in silence for a few seconds.
Eh Hser (with a breaking voice): Can’t you change your plans?
Su Thwi: I can’t. I’m really determined to go back and build up my village and town, and to help develop Karen literature and culture. I want to help the young generation get an education. You are also an educated person so you can help young people more than me by teaching and sharing your skills if you join us.
Eh Hser: How can I go with you? I still need to look after my people in exile and those who are in the jungle. And I have to think for my father as well [who is their army commander]. I’m a strong revolutionary. Won’t you change your mind and stay with us?
Su Thwi: I can’t change my mind at all because we can’t stop things that are going to happen. The only thing is that we have to follow fate like you follow a river. If you try to resist, you’ll drown.
Eh Hser: OK now you’re fed up and you’ve lost your faith and patience with us and you’ve lost your love for the KNU so we’ve become enemies.
Su Thwi: Does that mean that because I can’t be faithful to the KNU anymore, you’ll have to kill me as your enemy? If you’re going to do that, kill me with my own weapon. If you want to shoot me, shoot straight at the blood and sweat that I’ve devoted to the Karen struggle.
Su Thwi takes hold of Eh Hser’s hand and places his gun in it while gazing into her eyes. Eh Hser turns her face away from him, towards the camera, and closes her eyes. There is an expression of devastation on her face. After a few seconds of silence, Eh Hser cocks the gun and aims it directly at Su Thwi with both her hands. The camera switches to a new shot focusing directly into the barrel of the gun, with Eh Hser’s hands and face in the background. The camera moves back so both are in view.
Eh Hser: You don’t have love for us anymore. You broke your promise. Now you’re following a terrible path.
The camera turns back to the gun barrel and we see that Eh Hser’s hands are shaking. Suddenly, Eh Hser raises the gun and fires a shot into the sky. The camera pans down as she lowers her arms, revealing her eyes full of tears. Eh Hser slowly places the gun on the table and walks away. After a sleepless night, Eh Hser decides to leave and join Su Thwi. They flee the next day with their arms and a group of civilians, now under fire from their former KNU comrades.
A number of scenes provide moral authority to the DKBA, perhaps some of the key intended messages. During the KNLA attack, a young girl is orphaned so Su Thwi adopts her. This is, perhaps, a metaphor for the way DKBA claim to take care of Karen people orphaned by the KNU. He comes back to his hometown in eastern Burma and begins work in township administration and security as part of the DKBA.
Early on, a couple of men from the Telakhon religious sect report that their bronze drum had been stolen. The men ask Su Thwi for help as the drum is culturally and politically significant. Bronze drums are a key symbol of the Karen ethno-nation, appearing on the Karen flag used by both the KNU and DKBA. Su Thwi takes the request very seriously and organizes a group of soldiers to get the drum back. The Telakhon are seen by many as authentically “Karen,” and defending their traditions would be an act of national assertion. The Telakhon leader petitions Su Thwi:
“We civilians rely on you. You are like our sons and nephews and we want to request that you work for your own people and protect and help them.”
Coming from the religious leader this exchange gives the DKBA characters a moral power to govern.
Su Thwi and his party then heroically set up a roadblock and successfully intercept a gang of drug dealers who had stolen the drum—a victory for Karen culture and an example of the role of DKBA safeguarding the Karen “nation” and the needs of citizens. The entire staging also posits a strong contrast: The Telakhon are depicted as primitive and helpless, not even knowing how to open a gate or sit on a chair while the DKBA officials are modern, in neat uniforms with cigarettes and canned drinks. Telakhon occupy an ambivalent position within Karen culture and politics. “Telakhon as primitive” is a common narrative amongst Christian Karen, although they are often also discussed as preservers of Karen culture. Politically, there has been conflict and tension between Telakhon villagers and the KNLA. One of my uncles, a KNLA soldier, was killed by a group of Telakhon, supposedly in cooperation with Burmese troops. I have a number of Telakhon relatives on my mother’s side, so she found the killing of her brother particularly treacherous. My mother went to see her Telakhon cousins, arguing that they do not have the intellectual capacity to differentiate their brothers from their enemies. My mother saw the killing of her brother as a sign of primitiveness, as the perpetrators could be easily lured by the Burmese “enemy.”
I found it disconcerting to see DKBA soldiers shown as supporters and protectors of villagers—given many media and human rights reports produced within the Burmese diaspora portray the DKBA as villains, consistent with my first frightening experience of them. However, I have come to realize that the DKBA are also a product of historical circumstances. I used to see the conflict in black and white terms where KNU were good and DKBA were evil. But when I look deeper, the reality is complex. I used to think that the DKBA leaders were simply motivated by profit but, while that is certainly partly the case, the DKBA was also able to gain some autonomy and promote Pwo Karen language and Buddhism, which has been neglected under the KNU.
The film is surprising in that it does not portray the KNU in black and white terms as an evil other—the KNU is part of Su Thwi and those left behind were his friends. His KNU superiors explained their position in a reasonable way. They also want peace and they don’t believe that returning to the town and making a deal with the Burmese government is the right approach. It is interesting to see that the DKBA are not presenting a simplistically ideological view of the KNU as “bad” and of themselves as “good.” If the KNU were to be depicted as evil, they wouldn’t have let Su Thwi leave in the first place since they had plenty of time to attempt to arrest and/or execute him. This more balanced representation of the KNLA makes the propagandistic message of the film far more effective.
Back in the present time, Su Thwi visits his (other) former lover to meet his son again. He brings his daughter and tries to arrange for them to marry, not knowing that Kyaw Thwi Paing is committed to Pu Shu. Pu Shu, looking for her lover, overhears the marriage talk, and thinking that Kyaw Thwi Paing is unfaithful, runs away. She sees a car, climbs inside and tries to drive away, but tragically drives into a tree and kills herself. This ties the fate of Kyaw Thwi Paing with his father, Su Thwi—both fall in love and that love ends in tragedy. Romantic tragedy, creates sympathy for both men.
Despite being a propaganda film, Blood’s Oath is a surprisingly thoughtful attempt at providing DKBA’s side of the Karen civil war. DKBA’s role as co-producer is clearly stated in bold text in the credits so there is no attempt to hide their involvement in the film. Predictably, the DKBA do not show any of their many faults: corruption, taxation, human rights abuses and their role in supporting Burmese army offensives against the KNU. But beyond the propaganda, it is a sensitive attempt to justify a politics of accommodation between Karen insurgents and the Burmese state—something the ability to produce the film is itself a product of. While elements of the DKBA continue to engage in war, through the ceasefire they have been able to establish limited enclosures of relative peace in areas under their control. As the political narrative in Burma is rapidly changing through democratization, the use of propaganda in film will likely loosen, as warring parties reconcile. This will open up new spaces for producers like the Thamanya Happy and Beautiful Literature Group that will hopefully involve new and creative forms of film experimentation and cinematic projects of reconciliation.
1. The Karen Human Rights Group, based on the Thai border, has produced regular reports on human rights abuses perpetrated by the DKBA, collected by their network of reporters in eastern Burma.
See http://www.khrg.org/ [return to text]
2. For a recent discussion of Burmese cinema, see Ferguson (2007).
3. According to South, who has conducted research on the DKBA,
“DKBA leaders… have implemented several well-regarded local infrastructure-development projects. Furthermore, research indicates that conditions for internally displaced persons in DKBA-controlled ceasefire areas are better than those in zones of on-going armed conflict or government-controlled relocation sites” (2010: p.76).
4. Burmese (non-Karen) celebrities who have appeared in DKBA VCDs include Thu Htoo San, Wei Lu Kyaw, Soe Myat Nandar, Nawarat, Zin Zin Zaw Myint, Thazin, Nan Su Yadi Soe, Aye Wut Yee Thaung, Nyi Nanda, Su Pan Htwar, Min Thu, Thet Mon Myint, Khin Lay Nwe, Hla Inzali Tint and Chit Snow Oo. Karen celebrities include Paw Nay Mu and Hackett.
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Selth, Andrew. Populism, Politics and Propaganda: Burma and the Movies. Hong Kong: Southeast Asia Research Centre, the City University of Hong Kong, 2008.
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