Small is good

I don’t usually flag up new issues here, but, for once, why not?

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Here’s the latest, two small format low values (500K counts as low these days) to honour the 23rd ASEAN Postal Business Meeting, hosted this year by Myanmar at Naypyitaw. These came out on the 21st, together with an official first day cover and a maximum card for each value, which seems to be the default current practice.

On the minus side, that’s too many  items to service – four official covers and cards plus the privately produced covers. Why do we need a separate cover for each value?

On the plus side, these are neat, unpretentious little stamps that celebrate an actual occasion of political and postal significance, mundane though it may seem. Myanmar still produces and prints its own stamps. They commemorate real events, not collector-targeted themes. And stamps are still very widely used in Myanmar. And that’s all good. Long may it stay that way!

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Improvising censorship in the Military Administration

Apologies for the unforgivably long time since my last post here.

I’m continually fascinated by the postal history of the 1945 Military Administration of Burma, which still has secrets to reveal, seven decades on. Amazing how much there is still to discover, even within the space of just six months of postal service.

Here’s an example. This cover was sent to the Regional Inspector of posts from Prome on 15 August 1945, the day that office re-opened following the reoccupation. It’s paid at over the actual letter rate, probably as a way of confirming what values of stamps had been supplied. But if the office was new to the business, so was the Prome censor. Since the cover contained no letter, the censor signed and enclosed a typewritten slip confirming this, a practice I haven’t encountered before. A piece of typewritten censor label covers the rear flap, and this was duly stamped with censor marks. An individual examiner’s mark, DG/110, was applied but the proper hand stamp for the Prome censor station – an octagon with crown and “PASSED”, numbered DGE/1 – seems not yet to have arrived.

As a makeshift the censor put to use an Airgraph censor mark with a Rangoon number, DGB/1, crossing through the word “AIRGRAPH”. This is a usage not previously recorded. Its scarcity is not just in this context; airgraph forms were generally stamped with military unit censor marks, but even when a civilian censor mark like this was used, the original form was destroyed after it had been photographed for transmission. Since very few original forms survive, few original censors survive either. And come to that, I’ve never seen an airgraph with a Burma “DG” censor mark, and I’m not sure if Burma airgraph censorship has ever been explored and documented.

Hopefully, someone can tell me. If you can, please send a message via the “Comment” option”!

Postmark meltdown!

A small batch of recent covers and clippings arrived today, and reminded me that this is a particularly interesting time to be collecting current Myanmar postal history. Not that many do; collectors in Myanmar tend to be rather new issue-focused these days, while very few inland commercial covers find their way out of the country in the natural course of things.

But as Toe Kyaw Kyar has recently shown at his excellent blog, Myanmar’s postmarks are at present in a splendid state of disarray. The generation of cancellers introduced in the year 2000 is long past its shelf life, and a new type has seen limited distribution so far. Offices are obliged to fall back on all sorts of locally generated types, or to retrieve older, sometimes barely legible, cancellers from the bottom drawer. Dates are almost invariably inserted separately with rubber stamp daters, and violet ink pads are now the norm. Even a major city such as Mawlyamine is obliged to make do with a cancellation that is, for all practical purposes, illegible.

In extreme cases, stamps are cancelled by dater only, or by dumb cancels, such as the blank date bar in a blank circle shown here (second image) among a variety of other examples. I haven’t identified the offices on these, but you’ll get the idea. Click on the images for enlargements and slide show.

Registration marks, replacing the registration labels of a few years ago, are in a similar state of decentralisation, no two apparently being the same. A few of these include the office post code, and it’s interesting to see that on a few covers a postal clerk has written in the post code of the destination post office. It seems that Myanmar’s post code system, such as it is, is enjoying a limited official resurgence; more on the strange history of Burmese post codes in a future post.

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.

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 …