Bags, tags and labels

Something from the fringes of philately – some modern mail bag labels, thanks to a kind gift from Myanmar. These need a bit of study (when I can find the time) to make full sense of them, but here’s a sample of some different types, in case anyone’s interested.

First, some foreign incoming labels from about 1990, surface mail and (the two top right) registered. The former are clearly standardised by UPU regulation, and all are in card, with proper holes for ties. I imagine the registered labels are from inner bags, within the main bag. (Click all images to enlarge.)

The arrival of the barcode has changed the look of these more recent examples, surface, air and registered, and the standardisation of design seems more thorough. Interesting to note that in the destination code – MMRGN – the country title, MM for Myanmar, recognises the new form while the city name, RGN for Rangoon, still does not. The big plastic label has a Thai security checked sticker on the back – something for civil censorship collectors.

Next, some domestic EMS (Expedited, or Express Mail Service) bag labels from 2000. The one on the left has a red marking reading “Airport Security / checked / Myeik”. The others are from Mandalay (marked as a “green bag”), Kalaw and Salin, all to Yangon.

Now some more recent inland labels, from 2010 and 2011 – the most interesting of the lot, in my opinion. Only one pukka card label here; the rest are random pieces of card and folded paper, some attached to the bags with string and sealing wax. The postmarks of the sending offices are clear enough, and some of the abbreviations are simple enough – “YAN RL BN 11” for registered letters to Yangon, bag number 11, for instance – but others will need a bit of deciphering.

Finally, to bring things up to date, the plastic security ties now used by Myanmar Post, cut and discarded when the bags are opened. There are thousands of similar ties on sale online, all, as far as I can see, made in China, but I haven’t yet been able to identify the manufacturer of these. All that is now shown is the post code of the sending office. (Post codes in Myanmar relate to post offices only. Therein lies a tale, but perhaps for another time.)

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.

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.

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.

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 …

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.