Another reason I like collecting Burma

My first post here showed a large and highly coloured first day cover for the 1964 definitives, very Burmese in its graphic style, by a maker unknown to me. Here’s another by the same hand that’s just reached me, this time for the 1963 issue for the first anniversary of the “Revolution”, or military assumption of power. The front parades Burma’s natural resources, while the whole of the reverse is illustrated with a panorama of landmarks. Interesting that the flag is not the national flag but the white star of the Tatmadaw, the armed forces. Condition isn’t perfect here, but what the heck.

fdc2_0001

fdc2_0002
Most images of the famed Inle Lake leg rowers show single rowers, but here we have a boat full, all lined up. The overarching female figure on the front at first suggested a Nat (spirit) to me, but the peacock head dress must indicate a national personification – a Mother Burma?

Advertisements

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.

New peacock forgeries – made in Myanmar?

The 1942 peacock overprints of Burma have been notoriously forged, and at this stage it would be impossible to catalogue all known forgery types. A better strategy is to study the originals, or images of them if you can’t afford originals – assuming of course that the creator of the image you study has been able to tell the difference.

Even so, it’s maybe worth posting a heads-up on a series of forged overprints (on genuine stamps) currently on offer on eBay and on Delcampe, and of a type I’ve not seen before. This may just be me, or it could be that these are newly made. Their well known seller resides on the West Coast of the USA, and his offerings (even if randomly priced) are all good – except for Japanese Occupation material, where he is best avoided. His usual source of supply is Myanmar, which may mean that these originate there. He has already retailed Occupation forgeries made by the late U Mya Win, but these peacocks are not from Mya Win’s known stock. Anyway, whoever made them, they show some interesting features.

The types (as per SG) seen so far include type 2 Myaungmya, type 4 Pyapon, type 5 Henzada, type 6 (long since delisted, but once attributed to Henzada) and type 6a, the Myaungmya “official”. All these show three rather interesting and striking characteristics.

First, their graphic style is distinctively odd, and in places it looks almost as if the negative shapes – the white “holes” – have been drawn into a black silhouette. These negative shapes make little sense compared to the details of the real overprints; it’s as if someone has taken a blurred and partial strike of the real thing and has made an incredibly neat tracing from it. (Or has passed it through a digital filter that massively enhances the edges.) There are no greys or fading areas, just hard edged black and white.

Secondly, each type seems to have been produced in blocks of four sub-types, all of which show the same general idiosyncrasies but each of which is recognisably different in small ways. Two overprints – Myaungmya and Henzada – have been seen so far in blocks of four, so presumably all exist thus. (In what follows, we can designate the sub-types “a” to “d”, going top to bottom and left to right.)

Thirdly, every strike of a sub-type is absolutely identical; there are none of the accidental variations that we would expect to see from the differing pressures of a hand stamp or press. On the Myaungmya and Henzada types various little dots and dashes are visible at the edges of the overprint in all sub-types, reminiscent of the accidental ink spatters sometimes seen on the real overprints, but on every stamp of a sub-type these are reproduced absolutely consistently, so such spots are not in any way accidental but incorporated in the sub-type.

All these circumstances suggest to me that these overprints may have been produced with a digital printer, but without inspecting the actual stamps (and I’ve no intention of paying the prices asked for the privilege of doing so), I can’t be sure of that. Here’s each type, considered separately. I’ve heightened the contrast to clarify the details. Click the images for enlargements.

Type 2 Myaungmya is seen so far only on the “Service” stamps: 3p, 6p, 1½a, 2a and 4a. As no “Service” types were actually used for this overprint, this is a bit of a give away. Shown here is a block of the four sub-types on the 3p value and singles for each value showing sub-type b. The feel of the image is remarkably rough compared with the real thing.

Type 4 Pyapon: 6p, 2a and 4a seen so far. The examples here are not identical, and may be from different sub-types. The design is curiously reduced, almost abstract, compared to the original.

Type 5 Henzada: GV 3p, 9p,  2a, 2a 6p, and GVI 1p and 2a seen so far, the latter inverted – an unknown variety. A block of four sub-types for the GVI 2a invert is shown here, with singles of the GV 3p sub-type d, 9p sub-types b and d, 2a, sub-type c and 2a 6p sub-type b. The 2a 6p was not part of the genuine issue. The GVI singles here are a 1p single of sub-type b and a 2a (inverted) of sub-type c.

The “die” has the look of the genuine position 8, but as imitated in the better known Gee Ma and “Japanese Special Service Post” forgeries, with the straight left arc, the white nick in the peacock’s neck and the projecting “feather” on the right wing. In other words, it’s a rough imitation of existing forgeries.

Type 6 (bogus, so not listed in most catalogues) has been seen in the 3p, 1½a and 2a. The three singles shown here, while superficially similar, probably represent three different sub-types. Interestingly, the forger has chosen to imitate the “original” version of this overprint, in which the arc often appears thinner at one side, rather than its imitations. The original may be bogus, delisted and unpriced, but these days copies are often offered at adventurously high prices, so it’s worth the forger’s while to include this type.

Type 6a, the Yonthon or official overprint produced at Myaungmya, has been seen overprinted on the correct 8a “Service” value. The appearance of the bird here is especially weird and “hollowed”. The four sub-types are very similar to each other.

I doubt that these are the only values produced, but hopefully this is enough documentation to help anyone who comes across these and is unsure. They are not dangerous forgeries, but people buy all sorts on eBay, and sometimes pay handsomely for their mistakes, which is a bit depressing. If anyone has seen these distinctive forgeries elsewhere, or knows more about their origin, do get in touch.

Up date, mid May. After an absence following the appearance of this post (or rather a spell away on Delcampe) these forgeries are back on eBay. A new addition is the Myaungmya high value peacock, seen so far on the 1 rupee stamp. As well as the break in the outline of the left wing at the shoulder (a feature of other forgeries of this type) this version is easily recognisable by its spotty appearance.

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.

val 1val 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 …

Myanmar Philately – a new app from Ko Toe Kyaw Kyar

screenIcon

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.

bia arm band

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.

wazi

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!