Dating the peacocks

The late Gerald Davis was fond of saying that he had never seen a genuine commercially used Burma Independence Army peacock overprint on cover in his sixty years of collecting Burma. I don’t think I had either – until this emerged recently online, offered and (as far as I know) unsold at the somewhat optimistic starting price of $1250.


It’s only a scruffy Chettiar cover of course, from Lemyethna near Henzada to Athegyi in Bassein in August 1942, so at the late end of the peacock period. The cancel on the Henzada 1 anna stamp is almost impossible to read; the top line shows “5” for 5 pm, and the lower line starts with a “2”, so apparently 20-something of July. Next, the cover picked up a transit mark from Set 3 of TPO R-30 (Out), the Letpadan to Bassein section of the railway. But here the empty bar was pencilled in with the date in Burmese numerals and in the Burmese calendar: 2 – 5 – 04. This is the second day of the fifth month (second month of Waso), 1304 Burmese Era, which equates to 29 July. It then took another two weeks to reach Athegyi on 14th August, the postal clerk writing that date neatly in the empty date bar in the English calendar.

So, three ways on one cover to postmark the date: English calendar date slugs, Burmese calendar hand written, and English calendar reinserted by hand. Clearly, this was a transitional situation! Hand written Burmese dates also appear on genuine philatelic covers for the peacock period (such as those by Lim Peng Hong, aka Aung Myint). They are nothing to do with damaged cancellers, but were introduced by the nationalists of the Burma Independence Army at the resumption of postal services in early May, and by late August this practice had been countermanded by the Japanese postal authorities in Rangoon. A postmaster’s date stamp record for Daikpyet post office was acquired in 1945 by Lim Peng Hong, which documented the first date of the reinsertion of English date slugs at that office as 30 August; the change back may well have been earlier at other offices, given that Athegyi was again using the English calendar by 14 August and Lemyethna by late July, judging by this cover.

Collectors will object that they have covers with genuine peacocks and genuine postmarks of May or June of 1942 with the English date slugs perfectly intact. The deduction is clear and simple: they are almost certainly all faked. Genuine cancellers were widely misused in 1945 to cater for the philatelic thirst for Occupation covers, but even the cleverest fakers, such as sub-postmaster Sein Kho, seem to have been unaware of the standard use of hand written Burmese dates during the peacock period  – fortunately for us. This deduction may be clear, but it is not popular, and the most reputable and established of dealers continue to sell such retrospective covers as if they were the real thing.

It was ever thus …

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Myanmar Philately – a new app from Ko Toe Kyaw Kyar

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News comes from Toe Kyaw Kyar of his new Android app on ‘Myanmar Philately’, the first app ever on the topic, we think. It can be downloaded and installed on your phone or tablet with Android version 4 and above, and is accessible at Google Play, here. A great development! There are links to Ko Toe’s blog posts, and a section on ‘Myanmar Postage Stamps (1937-Present)’ is being added. Feedback, rating and comments are welcome.

For an old fashioned route to Toe’s blog, find the links at the bottom of this page under “Blogroll”.

Interfering with the mails

A couple of days ago a big envelope came for me from Myanmar. It contained nothing more sinister than some photocopied pages from a philatelic book, but on arrival it proved to have been thoroughly perlustrated, as I believe the technical term to be. The sender’s sellotape along the flap had not been touched, but each edge of the envelope at the flap end had been slit open for about 8 cm, and a third, shorter, opening had been made near the corner above the flap. Sure, large envelopes often take knocks at the edges in transit, but this had been carefully opened for inspection. The contents had been sealed by the sender (in anticipation) in a cellophane wallet, so the culprit would have been none the wiser. It’s not the first time.

Official inspection of mail in and out of Myanmar was an open secret during the years of overt military dominance, in recent times as much for currency control as for censorship, but it generally left its mark – a “checked” hand stamp, inspectors’ initials on an envelope flap, or just a suspicious biro squiggle in a corner of a cover. But this may simply be an instance of unofficial interference somewhere in the mail system for purposes of thievery, pure and simple.

Myanmar’s postal service is far from alone in suffering from this sort of thing. But in a small way this does indicate something of the level of habitual corruption in public services that a new and reforming administration will have to deal with.

Meanwhile, the envelope goes into the subsection of my collection that deals with surveillance and fraud, alongside covers with stamps and registration labels removed in transit, postage paid by used stamps layered partly over each other to conceal previous postmarks, security marks on black and white registration labels to deter photocopying, and so on. It’s a growing theme.

Why do peacocks have rockers?

Images of Burma national flags show the peacock on a plain white ground (Konbaung dynasty) or on a coloured disc (British era). The disc arrangement was followed by the Burma Independence Army of 1942, as shown, for example, on this printed BIA arm band, recently offered at auction. (The yellow, green and red tricolour was readopted as the basis of the national flag in 2010.) Or as on this rubber stamped seal of the Salin (in Magwe) Township BIA, on a document clipping in my collection, which shows a very splendid peacock indeed.

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BIA Salin

 

 

 

 

Some BIA peacock overprints of 1942 show the bird within such a circle (Myaungmya rupee values, or one type on postal stationery), but others set the bird on an arc or “rocker”. Why the arc? It’s hardly the natural shape for a patch of ground to stand the peacock on. What can it represent?


I’ve pondered this much over the years when I’ve had nothing better to do, and the only derivation I can suggest is that these overprints were modelled on a BIA cap badge that in its turn was based on that of the Burma Rifles in British service. I’m no expert, and I can find no image of such an insignia for the BIA, but Burma Rifles badges include the unit title on a scroll or ribbon below. The scroll may be flattish or more deeply curved; the bird’s wings may be fully visible or tucked back. Most versions show the head facing left. Interestingly, these variations are reflected in the overprints. So were the “rockers” intended for scrolls without inscriptions?

Well, it’s a theory. Advice please, from those who know!

What’s at Wazi?

My previous post mentioned in passing the Myanmar government’s security printing works (SPW Myanmar) at Wazi, where bank notes, postage stamps and revenues are printed. Time was when the location of Wazi was a state secret, but not any more, thanks to Google Earth. To find it, go to Chauk (in Magwe Division), head up the river branch to the north west, and two bends up you’ll find it, a rectangular compound just above Lan Ywar township, connected by road to Lan Ywar air strip. The last time I snapped a Google Earth image of Wazi was in 2007, but not much appears to have changed, though the white area with blue roofs outside the perimeter at the left is a more recent addition.

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Since the Referendum issue of December 1973 all Burma and Myanmar stamps have been lithographed or photogravured in house at Wazi. Stamps are despatched from the works in nice fat packets of 50 sheets, the majority of issues at 50 stamps per sheet. The packets are folded out of sheets of stout security paper, often with metallic speckles, and a “window” is cut diagonally across one corner, to enable sheets to be counted before opening. The flaps are sealed by a typographed label which is tied each side to the packet by a circular hand stamp in violet, inscribed “SECURITY PRINTING WORKS” around an “S”, all in English.

The labels are all similar, with only minor variations. Each bears the SPW logo in a pleasing engine turned style. (Click images for slide show.)

Each label spells out the number of sheets, the number of stamps per sheet, the value per stamp and the total value, followed by a rubric exhorting postal staff to count the sheets and return the packet unopened if any discrepancy is found. On the reverse a hand stamp provides a space for the packet number and the pencilled signatures of the two staff who counted the sheets before sealing the packet.

Is there another postal administration that still prints all its own stamps? The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing closed its stamp production in 2005 after an illustrious 111 year history. It’s much to be hoped that the incoming Myanmar administration will not be tempted or bribed into outsourcing production to some dreadful wallpaper agency such as IGPC. Myanmar’s stamps, whatever their limitations, are distinctive and locally relevant, and the issuing policy is conservatively modest. Myanmar’s stamps are printed to be used, and they remain the predominant means of paying postage. Long may things stay that way!

 

Mr Peter and the mystery overprint

It’s some years now since the too early death of Peter McBride, the Northern Ireland stamp dealer. A decade ago he made frequent visits to Myanmar to wheel and deal, and his tall, imposing figure was regularly seen at Yangon GPO, where as “Mr Peter” he rather enjoyed playing the District Commissioner.  He was happy to cultivate the acquaintance of local officials, offering his opinion that the Burmese people were “not ready for democracy” and deriding Aung San Suu Kyi. His ultimate aim was to gain entry to the state security printers at Wazi, but this prize eluded him, which was probably for the best. Meanwhile, packets of sheets of musical instrument definitives went out in his luggage on departure; fortified by grossly inflated catalogue prices based on “official” exchange rates, these passed into a speculative market, and some even found their way to Afinsa. (At one point, before sensibly suspending valuations, Gibbons had the K100 definitive at £44 mint or used. Today K100 is the lowest step postage rate. Peter’s argument was that as the wholesale export of Myanmar’s stamps, like its currency, was illegal, this created de facto rarity.) With the stamps travelled covers with improvised “Railway Letter” marks, vintage cancellers perhaps from some back shelf at the GPO godown, and much other loot.

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A dearth of new issues in 2005-6 (prolonged even by Myanmar’s standards) was interrupted by the startling appearance of a commemorative overprint, the first since 1963, to mark the football World Cup. This was done heavily by letterpress on the 2004 FIFA issue, and read gaba loun: bo: loun: pwe: 2006 – “World Football Festival 2006”; oddly, albino impressions of parts of the overprint showed in left and right selvages. The issue was not announced in the local press, contrary to the routine practice, and Yangon collectors knew nothing of it. Apart from anything else, Myanmar’s national team were not even participating in Germany 2006, having withdrawn from a 2002 preliminary, to be disqualified as a result. As Peter had been recently in Yangon, I asked for his views.

“It would not surprise me,” he emailed, “if an individual in GPO bank of medium level ‘privately’ may have overprinted 500 sheets and distributed them at a small premium through some post offices.” He had obtained “some” himself and had contrived to have a couple of dozen cancelled on cover. “A legitimate but short lived issue available in some offices” was his verdict.

Legitimacy is a fluid concept, and all this now appears a tad disingenuous; at this distance can there be any harm in suggesting that the World Cup overprint must have been Peter McBride’s personal creation? Let’s just say, in Peter’s own words, that it would not surprise me. In July 2006 the International Bureau of the UPU at last extracted a response from Myanmar’s Ministry of Posts, confirming officially that the administration had not produced the overprint. By then, those new  issue dealers who were happy to buy the stamps had probably bought them. 500 sheets would make no less than 25,000 copies; they must all still be floating around somewhere out there, but are not seen today that often. As for the favour covers, I’ve yet to encounter one.

Back at the turn of the Millennium Peter had been most vocal in his opposition to the proliferation of “illegals” and to those who sold them. It’s a pity that the gamekeeper was tempted to turn poacher in this instance, but at least the overprint survives as a small memento of a buccaneering dealer’s brief intervention in the philately of Myanmar.

Bobby Roberts’ Yano seals

Don’t you hate it when owners deface the backs of their stamps? Expert marks, dealer marks, initials, catalogue numbers – a mess! But here’s a defacement I haven’t erased.

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This block of four ‘Yano seals’ came from the collection of Brigadier G L “Bobby” Roberts, co-author of the seminal The Japanese Occupation Stamps of Burma, 1942-1945, published in Lahore in 1947. In May 1942 the Burma post office, under Japanese military administration, set 1 June as the date for the re-opening of services, but then found that stamps could not be printed in time. As a provisional issue the personal seal of administrator Yano Shizuo was hand stamped onto pre-perforated sheets of 104 positions (13 rows of 8 columns). The sheets were imperf at the upper and right margins, and the paper had a sheet watermark of an elephant and “Absorbo Duplicator”. The lowest (thirteenth) row was always, for some reason, a little deeper than the rest, creating taller stamps, as in this block.

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On the back of the block (shown here with contrast tweaked) Roberts pencilled this sum:

  13
8
—-
104
2
—-
208
118
—-
326

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Brigadier Roberts

I’ve often puzzled over these numbers. The first three rows are easily explained: Roberts was calculating the number of stamps per sheet. Two sheets make 208 stamps, but what was the additional 118? This last figure seems to have nothing to do with numbers issued to post offices, and I can only assume that Roberts was totting up known surviving copies of this stamp – two full sheets plus 118 stamps in smaller multiples or singles. Perhaps on this basis, he concluded that the stamp was “rare” and that “only a small percentage of the 45,760 copies printed [440 sheets] have survived.”

This stamp has been much forged, including on the correctly watermarked paper! To spot a forgery, compare with those here, especially the break in the circle at four o’clock, the closeness to the circle of the top right curved bar of the right hand character, and the upper portion of the central character, which should resemble two interlaced triangles. The whole issue has been best documented by Ito Kyoichi; a translation appears in Japanese Philately 34 / 2 (April 1979).

Finally, here’s an unlisted variety – a partial double impression. Hardly surprising during (as Roberts dutifully calculated) eleven solid man hours of hand stamping.

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Karenni victory

A couple of covers pulled pretty much at random from one of the many folders whose contents I need to sort and mount. The Karenni border region of Myanmar (officially Kayah State) has seen one of the most intractable of the many ethnic insurgencies against the central government. As virtually all the seventy years’ real postal history of these insurgent territories has been lost, most of the philatelic evidence is now down to cinderellas. In the case of Karenni, these were shrewdly promoted in the ‘nineties by Abel Tweed, Foreign Minister of insurgent Karenni; as Edith Mirante noted in one of her insurgent chronicles, foreign supporters were Tweed’s political strength at the time. Karenni labels produced by sympathisers in Switzerland, New Zealand, Thailand and the UK were boosted by mail art competition creations of varying quality, and much of this parapostal material was dispatched to the Karenni Foreign Ministry based just across the Thai border at Mae Hong Son. Some of it even found its way out again attached to mail. I won’t reference all this context, as further information is easily found via Google.

karenni

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These two ‘nineties covers came from New Zealand activist and mail artist Murray Menzies, appointed by Karenni at the time as its chargé d’affaires for the ‘South Pacific Region’. They carry a neat little label with the iconic image of a Kayah or Padaung woman in brass neck rings, printed in black on cream paper, perf or imperf. There are variations, as shown here, and many other such labels; a complete catalogue would be both impossible and tedious, but at some point some kind of basic listing will be needed just for the record, I guess. In the meantime, we can show a few more here from time to time.

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One reason I like collecting Burma

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Here’s a first day cover for you.

Something like a first day cover, I feel. This is for the Burma 1964 birds definitives, and not an official production. Privately created, but I don’t know the maker. It has just about everything I like in Burmese graphic design – primary colours, an elaborate sense of ceremony, and a strong sense of cultural identity. The large red Burmese numerals at each side are for “1” and “6” for the date, 16th April, and it ties in the date of issue with Thingyan, the Burmese New Year festival, when folks very sensibly abandon work and run around throwing water at each other. There’s a hint of improvisation too (a constant philatelic theme in Burma / Myanmar), given that the blank rectangles in the branches at right are far too small for the stamps they were intended to take. The cover is 10.5″ wide; if it was scaled down to this size, goodness knows how vast the original must have been.

These days, computer graphics programs are globalised, and some modern Myanmar first day covers have become a bit blanded out compared to this. I can’t think of a better way to kick off this blog.