Stamping Out History
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Stamping Out History

By Bertil Lintner JANUARY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.1


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.

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