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!

 

Mr Peter and the mystery overprint

It’s some years now since the too early death of Peter McBride, the Northern Ireland stamp dealer. A decade ago he made frequent visits to Myanmar to wheel and deal, and his tall, imposing figure was regularly seen at Yangon GPO, where as “Mr Peter” he rather enjoyed playing the District Commissioner.  He was happy to cultivate the acquaintance of local officials, offering his opinion that the Burmese people were “not ready for democracy” and deriding Aung San Suu Kyi. His ultimate aim was to gain entry to the state security printers at Wazi, but this prize eluded him, which was probably for the best. Meanwhile, packets of sheets of musical instrument definitives went out in his luggage on departure; fortified by grossly inflated catalogue prices based on “official” exchange rates, these passed into a speculative market, and some even found their way to Afinsa. (At one point, before sensibly suspending valuations, Gibbons had the K100 definitive at £44 mint or used. Today K100 is the lowest step postage rate. Peter’s argument was that as the wholesale export of Myanmar’s stamps, like its currency, was illegal, this created de facto rarity.) With the stamps travelled covers with improvised “Railway Letter” marks, vintage cancellers perhaps from some back shelf at the GPO godown, and much other loot.

world cup
A dearth of new issues in 2005-6 (prolonged even by Myanmar’s standards) was interrupted by the startling appearance of a commemorative overprint, the first since 1963, to mark the football World Cup. This was done heavily by letterpress on the 2004 FIFA issue, and read gaba loun: bo: loun: pwe: 2006 – “World Football Festival 2006”; oddly, albino impressions of parts of the overprint showed in left and right selvages. The issue was not announced in the local press, contrary to the routine practice, and Yangon collectors knew nothing of it. Apart from anything else, Myanmar’s national team were not even participating in Germany 2006, having withdrawn from a 2002 preliminary, to be disqualified as a result. As Peter had been recently in Yangon, I asked for his views.

“It would not surprise me,” he emailed, “if an individual in GPO bank of medium level ‘privately’ may have overprinted 500 sheets and distributed them at a small premium through some post offices.” He had obtained “some” himself and had contrived to have a couple of dozen cancelled on cover. “A legitimate but short lived issue available in some offices” was his verdict.

Legitimacy is a fluid concept, and all this now appears a tad disingenuous; at this distance can there be any harm in suggesting that the World Cup overprint must have been Peter McBride’s personal creation? Let’s just say, in Peter’s own words, that it would not surprise me. In July 2006 the International Bureau of the UPU at last extracted a response from Myanmar’s Ministry of Posts, confirming officially that the administration had not produced the overprint. By then, those new  issue dealers who were happy to buy the stamps had probably bought them. 500 sheets would make no less than 25,000 copies; they must all still be floating around somewhere out there, but are not seen today that often. As for the favour covers, I’ve yet to encounter one.

Back at the turn of the Millennium Peter had been most vocal in his opposition to the proliferation of “illegals” and to those who sold them. It’s a pity that the gamekeeper was tempted to turn poacher in this instance, but at least the overprint survives as a small memento of a buccaneering dealer’s brief intervention in the philately of Myanmar.