Monday, January 28, 2008

Burma history through postage stamps

The Irrawaddy has an interesting article about a book on Burmese postage stamps which tracing the history of Burma up to 1988. The author, an activist, who has rallied again the illegal junta of army generals does not recognise the government of Burma post 1988... it's not legal... the elections were won far and square by Aung San Suu Kyi but she has not been allowed to lead the country. And, the illegal government continues it oppressive and deadly treatment of any and all who would oppose it.

Burmese postage stamps record the country’s official history, therefore the pro-democracy movement goes unrecognized

Stamps of Burma: A Historical Record Through 1988, by Min Sun Min. Mekong Press, Chiang Mai, 2007. P84.
Postage stamps are more than just small, adhesive pieces of paper that people put on envelopes, the author of this book argues. In the case of Burma, they are “a colorful visual record of its unique history, from the British colonial government through the Japanese occupation, the British military administration, Burma’s independence, the revolutionary council, and the Burmese Way to Socialism.” But, as there are no stamps depicting the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, the author fills this void by designing his own stamps to commemorate this struggle for freedom, and, who knows?— one day they may be sold in post offices in his home country?

I did not associate the author, who uses the pseudonym “Min Sun Min,” with an interest in philately when I first met him in late 1988 on the Thai-Burmese border, where he had fled after the military had brutally crushed the mighty uprising of that year. He was a writer, and he told me about the free newspaper that he had run in his hometown, Bassein.

From the left:
Two stamps from the Japanese occupation of Burma; A stamp from the British colonial era followed by the first stamp after independence in 1948 replacing King George VI with Aung San

Min Sun Min was his nom de plume, meaning “Unique King,” and he proved to be unique indeed. A year later he ended up in New York, one of the first Burmese dissidents to make it to the West after the 1988 uprising. There, every Saturday when he was free from work, he donned one of his two suits, knotted his one red polyester tie and rode the subway to the Burmese consulate in the city. He stood there every Saturday with placards that read: “Hand over the power to the voters!” and “Release all political prisoners!” He was a lone protester long before human rights and democracy in Burma became international issues, but he began receiving letters of support from all over the world. That aroused his interest in postage stamps, and how they reflect historical developments in their respective countries.

His book covers postal history and the world’s first postage stamps and contains a brief history of Burma and images of stamps from various eras in modern Burmese history with explanations of their significance. The first provisional stamps of Burma were issued on April 1, 1937, the date of its separation from India. These were Indian stamps with a portrait of the late British King, George V, with the overprint of the word “Burma” at the top. The first definitive stamps with “Burma Postage” printed on them and a picture of King George VI followed in 1938.

Socialist era stamps

Colonial imprint remained until the Japanese occupation, when new stamps were issued with text in Burmese letters as well as Japanese katakana, which is used by the Japanese for transcription of words from foreign languages. The Shan states, however, had their own stamps, some with “the State of Burma” (bama naing-ngan daw) overprinted in Burmese, reflecting the complex nature of the Japanese occupation, which ended in 1945.

Then the British were back, but this time the stamps did not depict only the face of the British monarch; they also had images of Burmese farmers, elephants and women with Burmese parasols. Colonial rule was coming to an end, and the first set of stamps after independence on January 4, 1948, looked exactly like the last colonial stamps — but with the picture of the British king replaced by that of Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, who had been assassinated on July 19, 1947. He and his cabinet colleagues who were killed along with him were commemorated with a special set of stamps issued in 1948.

Burmese stamps of the future?
Democratic Burma’s stamps showed Buddhist monks and temples and honored the United Nations. Then came the military coup of March 2, 1962, and the introduction of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Now the stamps depicted heroic farmers, workers and athletes, and railways and other signs of “progress” under the one-party rule of the Burma Socialist Program Party. And, still, portraits of Aung San, which under the present government have disappeared.

After the 1988 uprising, the “Burmese Way to Socialism” was abandoned, but military rule prevailed. Min Sun Min does not include any post-1988 stamps in his book, “because it was a turning point in Burmese history. That was the year when the military illegitimately assumed (direct) power.”

The last set of stamps depicted in the book—designed by Min Sun Min and, therefore, yet to be issued—show demonstrators thronging the streets of Rangoon and a Buddhist monk exhorting his audience at a rally in the capital in 1988.

Thus, the book ends on a very positive note: Min Sun Min has faith in a democratic future for Burma. The images of the cataclysmic events of 1988 will not be forgotten, he writes, and, “They deserve to be recorded and issued as stamps, one day, when Burma is free.”

Bertil Lintner is a correspondent who specializes in Burma and Asian issues. His latest book is Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (in Korean)

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