Mapping the Civil War

Recycling used paper stocks is a sure sign of austerity in the wake of war; the early stamps of Latvia printed on the backs of unwanted maps, for example, are well known. Burma did not produce its own stamps until the ‘seventies, but here’s an example of a very similar piece of thrift.

We often forget just how desperate things were in the years of civil war immediately after Burma’s independence (a civil war that continues even today in the shape of sporadic separatist fighting). In 1949 the countryside was largely  controlled by the ‘multicoloured’ insurgencies of the ‘White Flag’ and ‘Red Flag’ communists, the ‘White Band’ PVO, and Karen and Kachin forces, among others. At one point the beleaguered ‘six mile government’ of U Nu was pretty much blockaded into central Rangoon. Hardly surprising that the administration was forced to improvise, official stationery included.

Here is an official cover and a half (the reverse of the envelope) from Rangoon in April and June of 1951. Both are printed envelopes with “On State Service” replacing the old “OHMS” heading, so printed after independence, and both on the backs of pieces of maps. That on the full envelope (opened out here) shows a small patch of Karen State, curiously enough.

Postscript – Mike Whittaker writes: “I have two covers made from maps. One is a 1948 home-made newspaper wrapper from Rangoon University to London made from a map of an area of Siam (sic) by 12th Army Survey HQ, September 1945 and the other is an official cover from Taunggyi to New York, 1951 and made from a map of the Migyaunglaung area of Tenasserim.”

Here are Mike’s covers, inside and outside. The official envelope (below) is a match for mine.

St Valentine’s Day massacre

There was a period, not so long ago, when Myanmar’s stamps, cards and cancels reflected relentlessly the distinctive iconography of its particular totalitarianism: the statues of the three kings, the grandiose fountains and architecture of Naypyitaw, the stick-breaker statuette and so on, not forgetting – in the final days of the Than Shwe era – the white elephant. As officialdom demanded the same images every time in slightly varying combinations, the stamp designers didn’t have to think too much about their task. In today’s “democratic” climate they seem more uncertain.

On February 14 Myanmar Post came up with a set of three Valentine’s Day cards and a commemorative cancel – a brave new departure. The cards are, frankly, awful: icky globalised clip art, enlarged and stretched. Why, to pick on just one point, is the girl doll blonde? The accompanying cancellation repeats one of the designs but, significantly, manages to omit any national or post office name; someone, it seems, simply forgot about that, and on the day staff had to bring out the GPO pictorial canceller and apply that too, just to demonstrate an origin.

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Apparently there was zero publicity, and the cards and cancel were only available at Yangon GPO. I’ve no idea how many were sold to the few collectors in the know, but it can’t have been a lot. A special postmark on your Valentine’s card is a nice idea, but it’s one for the general public, and that requires promotion and availability. And as all the items are dated for 2016, they won’t be able to use the remainders next year.

For me, the disappointment lies in the nature of the designs. Myanmar has a long tradition of romantically themed pictorial stationery, and I like to collect such cards and covers, but there’s always been something distinctively Burmese in the graphics, which has been lost here. It’s almost enough to make you remember fondly the bad old days of totalitarian design … Well, not quite.