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.

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.