A Kawthoolei cinderella

The majority of labels supporting separatist ethnic causes in Burma seem to have been produced outside the country, and some are philatelically inclined. But here’s an exception. This Karen New Year label, typographed in red, blue and black, shows the flag of Kawthoolei, the liberated area claimed by the Karen National Union, and dates from around 1960. Over the sunrise in the canton is a Karen drum. To the margin of the imperf label the sender of the card has added “A merry X’mas”.

It’s attached to the back of a photo post card showing a handsome middle aged Karen man in traditional clothing holding a blurred grandchild, his left chest plastered with medal ribbons and military unit patches and badges – insignia for XII and XIV Armies, parachute wings, and what looks like the Burma Rifles are visible in there.

The sitter is Lionel Vandevere Po, and his CV, inscribed on the reverse of the card, serves to remind us just how closely the lives of some of Burma’s minority people were bound up with the fortunes of the British Empire and the British military:

Taken 10th Sept 1960
Born 8th May 1900 United in Love 27th April 1926
A Veteran of Two World Wars 1914-1918 & 1939-1945.
Started Military Career in 1st London Regt.
The Royal Fusiliers Aldershot, England.
“Wingate’s Phantom Army” 1942
General Staff Intelligence 1943 (Parachutist)

In 1922 Po had been commissioned a second lieutenant in the India army, but resigned in 1928. As a reserve officer he became a captain in 1940 and another card in my collection, written by him in 1941, confirms that he was then Captain commanding No 5 Garrison Company in Rangoon. During the War he served under the Special Operations Executive. Of his life after the War, or of his relation to the Karen insurgency or to the KNDO, I know nothing.

It seems unlikely that this label is the only design of its kind, but I’ve yet to see another.

Burma nearly broken

Here’s an ordinary looking cover, from Kamayut in Rangoon to Bombay in August 1949, but it’s unusual in three ways. First, because someone recently gave it to me, which is both unusual and very kind. Secondly, and philatelically, because of the “X / BY SURFACE” mark, a memento of the civil war crisis that nearly put paid to the new born Union of Burma government.

By early 1949 Karen insurgents had dug in within four miles of the capital city, and had raided Mingaladon airport and withdrawn, though they left aircraft and airport repairable and under government control. With surface routes beyond Rangoon largely destroyed or unsafe, Mingaladon came under enormous pressure, for both military and civil flights. To ease the situation, unregistered air mails to India were suspended in April, and not resumed until October. At the India end various markings – five different in all – were applied to indicate this re-routing. As the India air mail rate was increased with the resumption of the service, many senders then understamped their India mail; rather than charging postage due, the post office continued to send these underpaid items by surface, and the “X” marks were kept in use until February 1950.

broken-rThe third unusual feature here is a plate flaw on the stamp  of the 1948 Independence issue, in which the “R” of “BURMA” on the map (not in the top panel) is missing the lower half of its upright. In the sheet of 128 stamps, eight rows of sixteen, this elusive “broken R” variety occurs on the sixth stamp in the eighth or lowest row. As this set is common, there must be quite a few copies out there, but it’s hard to find, and examples on cover are rare, only a couple of others having been noted to my knowledge.

Conflict and instability continued for several years, and the blockaded Burma government of U Nu came close to breaking point, but survived. The “broken R” flaw makes a nice symbol of this crisis, somehow.

My thanks to Brian Saxe for his input on this variety. For another aspect of the postal history of the period, see this post.

Labels for the wild Wa

OK, so what exactly are these?

The history of the Wa people of Eastern Burma is well known, and in particular how the collapse of the armed forces of the Communist Party of Burma, including many Wa fighters, created the rise of the United Wa State Army, whose influence grew to control a huge tract of border territory, and then, with the cease fires, developed into nation wide business interests, both legitimate and reputedly less so.


So are these “stamps” the creation of the UWSA? Colour photocopied (or computer printed), roughly gummed and perf or imperf, their source of supply seems to be a single dealer in India, which is perhaps a bit worrying. And his prices aren’t cheap! Certainly, if the denominations are anything to go by, they can be none too recent; pyas don’t exist these days, and today’s stamps are valued in hundreds of kyats. Similar labels exist marked “Shan State”, but neither type seems to have any connection with the many other (more or less) bogus labels created for the ethnic separatist groups of Burma over the last forty or so years. (Use the “Karenni” tag below for a few examples.)

If anyone has more information on these, I’d love to hear it.

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.

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.


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.