Burma was a part of India from 1826 until it became a self-governing unit of the British Commonwealth, complete with a constitution, on April 1, 1937. It achieved full independence as the Union of Burma on January 4, 1948, and in 1989 officially changed its name to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Pyidaunzu Thanmăda Myăma Nainngandaw — ပြည်ထောင်စုသမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်). Many political and ethnic opposition groups and countries continue to use the name “Burma” because they do not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government or its authority to rename the country. Official United States policy retains Burma as the country’s name, although the State Department’s website lists the country as “Burma (Myanmar)” and Barack Obama has referred to the country by both names.
The country is in Southeast Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. One-third of Myanmar’s total perimeter of 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, and is 261,227 square miles (676,578 square kilometers). On November 6, 2005, the administrative capital of the country was officially moved to a greenfield site 2 miles (3.2 km) west of Pyinmana, and approximately 200 miles (320 km) north of Yangon (Rangoon), the previous capital. It is not known why the capital was moved and the planned city is still largely under construction.
Early civilizations in Myanmar included the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu city-states in Upper Burma and the Mon kingdoms in Lower Burma. In the ninth century, the Bamar people entered the upper Irrawaddy valley and, following the establishment of the Pagan Kingdom in the 1050’s, the Burmese language, culture and Theravada Buddhism slowly became dominant in the country. The Pagan Kingdom fell due to the Mongol invasions and several warring states emerged.
Political unification returned in the mid-sixteenth century, due to the efforts of Taungoo, a former vassal state of Ava. Taungoo’s young, ambitious king Tabinshwehti defeated the more powerful Hanthawaddy in the Toungoo–Hanthawaddy War (1534–41). His successor Bayinnaung went on to conquer a vast swath of mainland Southeast Asia including the Shan states, Lan Na, Manipur, Mong Mao, the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Lan Xang and southern Arakan. However, the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia unravelled soon after Bayinnaung’s death in 1581, completely collapsing by 1599. Ayutthaya seized Tenasserim and Lan Na, and Portuguese mercenaries established Portuguese rule at Thanlyin (Syriam).
The dynasty regrouped and defeated the Portuguese in 1613 and Siam in 1614. It restored a smaller, more manageable kingdom, encompassing Lower Myanmar, Upper Myanmar, Shan states, Lan Na and upper Tenasserim. The Restored Toungoo kings created a legal and political framework whose basic features would continue well into the 19th century. The crown completely replaced the hereditary chieftainships with appointed governorships in the entire Irrawaddy valley, and greatly reduced the hereditary rights of Shan chiefs. Its trade and secular administrative reforms built a prosperous economy for more than 80 years. From the 1720’s onward, the kingdom was beset with repeated Meithei raids into Upper Myanmar and a nagging rebellion in Lan Na. In 1740, the Mon of Lower Myanmar founded the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom. Hanthawaddy forces sacked Ava in 1752, ending the 266-year-old Toungoo Dynasty.
After the fall of Ava, the Konbaung–Hanthawaddy War involved one resistance group under Alaungpaya defeating the Restored Hanthawaddy, and by 1759, he had reunited all of Myanmar and Manipur, and driven out the French and the British, who had provided arms to Hanthawaddy. By 1770, Alaungpaya’s heirs had subdued much of Laos (1765) and fought and won the Burmese–Siamese War (1765–67) against Ayutthaya and the Sino-Burmese War (1765–69) against Qing China (1765–1769).
With Burma preoccupied by the Chinese threat, Ayutthaya recovered its territories by 1770, and went on to capture Lan Na by 1776. Burma and Siam went to war until 1855, but all resulted in a stalemate, exchanging Tenasserim (to Burma) and Lan Na (to Ayutthaya). Faced with a powerful China and a resurgent Ayutthaya in the east, King Bodawpaya turned west, acquiring Arakan (1785), Manipur (1814) and Assam (1817). It was the second-largest empire in Burmese history but also one with a long ill-defined border with British India.
The breadth of this empire was short lived. Assam was annexed in 1816 but designs upon the Ganges delta precipitated the First Burmese War (1824-7) with Britain. Arakan and Tenasserim were annexed to Bengal in February 1826. A postal service developed from the military needs of the First Burmese War. It depended on Bengal. By 1827, a post office was established at Akyab within another ten years there were four sub-offices (Kyouk Phyoo, Ramree, Sandway and Moulmein). Handstamps are known from 1838.
In 1852, the British easily seized Lower Burma in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. This resulted in the annexation to India of the province of Pegu. C. M. Crisp was appointed as Rangoon Postmaster soon after its capture in September 1852, and the posts extended to Pegu province. Starting in 1854, Burma used the stamps of British India without any form of overprinting. The stamps may be identified by the postmarks used which, after 1856, were specially prepared for Burma post offices. There were 22 post offices with numbered cancellers of the Bengal circle, including Port Blair in the Andaman Islands which opened in February 186o. British Burma was made a separate administration on 31 January 1862. Control of the Andaman Islands was added in 1864 and of the Nicobar Islands on their annexation in 1868.
The posts at this time were hardly used except by foreign residents, and district posts proved unnecessary until 1874. Internal communication by runner and riverboat remained slow and difficult for many years. Mail to Europe was routed via Calcutta into the Indian posts. Residency Post Agencies were opened intermittently between 1869 and 1885 at Mandalay and Bhamo while they were still in the kingdom of Ava.
King Mindon Min tried to modernise the kingdom, and in 1875 narrowly avoided annexation by ceding the Karenni States. The British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indochina, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War which lasted less than two weeks during November 1885. British troops entered Mandalay on November 28, 1885, and Burma was attached to the British Empire on January 1, 1886.
Burmese armed resistance continued sporadically for several years, and the British commander had to coerce the High Court of Justice to continue to function. The British decided to annex all of Upper Burma as a colony, and to make the whole country a province of the British India, within the Indian Empire. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on February 26, 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.
Throughout the colonial era, many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, construction workers and traders and, along with the Anglo-Burmese community, dominated commercial and civil life in Burma. Rangoon became an important port between Calcutta and Singapore.
Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralyzed Rangoon on occasion all the way until the 1930’s. Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement. U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest against a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.
The British separated Burma Province from British India on April 1, 1937, and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, with many powers given to the Burmese, but this proved to be a divisive issue as some Burmese felt that this was a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms. Ba Maw served as the first Prime Minister and Premier of Burma.
The first stamps specifically for Burma were nineteen stamps of British India, originally issued between 1926 and 1935, overprinted BURMA and released on April 1, 1937. The face values were in the Indian monetary system of pies (Ps), annas (As) and rupees (Rs) and ranged in denomination from 3 pies all the way up to 25 rupees.
At the end of July 1937, the Government of Burma advertised a public competition for the issue of a new series of postage stamps. Two hundred fifty-two designs were entered. A Royal Barge designed by Maung Kyi; a Burmese farmer plowing a rice field designed by Maung Ohn; an elephant moving a teak log designed by Maung Hlaine; and a sailboat on the Irrawaddy River designed by N.K.D. Naigamwalla were prize winning designs selected to be reproduced on stamps. On the right hand side of all the four stamp designs show the profile of King George VI wearing the Imperial State Crown with all the other royal trappings appears in an oval frame. These stamps were printed by the Security Printing Press, Nasik Security Printing Press, India and put on sale on November 15, 1938. These, along with four designs of King George VI stamps printed in 12 colors and face values were the first stamps inscribed Burma in the design, rather than simple overprints, On August 1, 1940, one more stamp in the 1 pie denomination was added to the set by the advice of U Ba Hlaing, a member of the British Burma House of Representatives.
On May 6, 1940, Burma issued its first commemorative stamp to celebrate the centenary of the first postage stamp. The stamp was created by surcharging the regular 2 anna 6 pies Royal Barge definitive stamp with with ONE ANNA and overprinting it COMMEMORATION / POSTAGE STAMP / 6TH MAY 1840. This was the last stamp issued prior to the start of World War II.
Ba Maw was an outspoken advocate for Burmese self-rule and he opposed the participation of Great Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. He resigned from the Legislative Assembly, having been forced out by U Saw in 1939, and was arrested for sedition. U Saw served as prime minister from 1940 until he was arrested on January 19, 1942, by the British for communicating with the Japanese. In 1940, before Japan formally entered the Second World War, Aung San formed the Burma Independence Army in Japan. A major battleground, Burma was devastated during World War II. By March 1942, within months after they entered the war, Japanese troops had advanced on Rangoon and the British administration had collapsed. A Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw was established by the Japanese in August 1942.
When the Japanese came into Burma in 1942, postage stamps were issued not only by the Japanese military administrative authority but also by the Burmese Independence Army (BIA) who authorized regional administrative organizations. The BIA and patriotic Burmese set up the Peace Preservation Committee and took the administration of the districts from which the British Administration had withdrawn, and became the de facto government. The first acts of the BIA administration was to start the postal services and function again.
The Japanese occupation forces authorized the postmasters of several delta post offices to use the stamps of the British issues that they had in stock, provided that the head of the King was adequately obliterated with some Burmese insignia, and the peacock was suggested. Therefore, regional authorities initially used the King George V and VI definitive stamps by overprinting the Burmese emblem, a peacock, in black, blue or red ink. The BIA used more than seven different types of dancing peacock seals.
During the occupation of Rangoon, the Japanese military authorities appointed Yano Shizuo as the Postmaster General of the Burma Postal Department, with a local rank of an army general. Immediately after taking over the appointment, General Yano took steps to issue a unique stamp. His personal signature seal in vermilion was used for stamps without the name of the country, face value, or adhesive. The stamps were done in small shops in the bazaars. Printing was done with a hand or treadle machine and perforation chiefly with a needle machine of the hand type. Ink soon became scarce and paper after a time almost unobtainable. These were first sold on June 1, 1942.
Yano Shizuo and his assistant Aoi Takeo soon produced another stamp portraying a farmer plowing in a field with palm trees in the background. The central design was taken from the 3.5 annas value of the 1938 King George VI issue), which depicted a farmer with a bullock plowing a field. Mr. Kato Tadashi designed this stamp. The stamps were printed in scarlet, with the word Burma and the face value of the stamp (one anna) written in Japanese. That stamp was printed by the Rangoon Gazette Press and issued for postal use on June 15, 1942. An added surcharge was placed on the stamp on October 15 of the same year.
Yano soon had a shortage of printing supplies to print stamps in Burma so he obtained from the Japanese postal authorities stamps of ten face values (1 to 30 Sen) known as the “Showa series.” He had them surcharged with a new value in black or red ink for use in Burma and put on sale in October 1942. The Japanese Showa stamps used in Burma during the occupation period exist with surcharges in three variations.
On the verge of Burma’s independence from Japan in 1943, the Burma State Government issued its first postage stamp of a very simple design in carmine. It showed a rising sun with radiating rays and displayed a Burmese helmet belonging to a warrior with a pair of crossed Burmese swords. In Burmese lettering “Burmese State Government” appears on the stamp. The designers were U Tun Tin and Maung Tin with the initial drawing done by U Ba Than. The value of this stamp was 5 cents. These stamps were first sold to the public on February 15, 1943, and intended to cover the embossed George VI envelope stamp and generally was sold affixed to such envelopes.
It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was deceived. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state on August 1, 1943. The Burmese Government issued a set of stamps to commemorate the independence granted from Japan on that date. During 1943, there was a serious shortage of paper and printing material in Rangoon for the production of stamps. The Japan Army Administration, therefore, arranged for a new set of stamps to be prepared in Java, where better and modern printing facilities existed. This stamp set is called the “Java set.”
On October 1, 1943, the government of the Burma State sold its first definitive stamps in three designs. At about the same time, definitive stamps for the Shan state were issued in seven denominations (from 1 to 30 cents) in two designs. These stamps were printed by G. Kolff & Company of Batavia, Java. A month later, on November 1, 1943, the administration of the Shan states came under the Burma State Government of Ba Maw, and the Shan state stamps were overprinted in black with lettering in Burmese translated as “Burma State.”
Wingate’s British Chindits were formed into long-range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. A similar American unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the Burmese jungle in 1943. Disillusioned, Aung San began negotiations with Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe, and Socialist leaders Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein which led to the formation of the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) in August 1944 at a secret meeting of the CPB, the PRP and the BNA in Pegu. The AFO was later renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), and roundly opposed the Japanese fascism, proposing a fairer and more equal society.
There were informal contacts between the AFO and the Allies in 1944 and 1945 through the British Force 136. On March 27, 1945, the Burma National Army rose up in a country-wide rebellion against the Japanese. March 27th was subsequently celebrated as ‘Resistance Day’ until the military renamed it ‘Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) Day’. Aung San and others subsequently began negotiations with Lord Mountbatten and officially joined the Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). At the first meeting, the AFO represented itself to the British as the provisional government of Burma with Thakin Soe as Chairman and Aung San as a member of its ruling committee.
The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945. Negotiations then began with the British over the disarming of the AFO and the participation of its troops in a post-war Burma Army. Some veterans had been formed into a paramilitary force under Aung San, called the Pyithu yèbaw tat or People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO), and were openly drilling in uniform. The absorption of the PBF was concluded successfully at the Kandy conference in Ceylon in September 1945.
The battles during World War II had been intense with much of Burma laid waste by the fighting. Overall, the Japanese lost some 150,000 men in Burma. Only 1,700 prisoners were taken. Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese as part of the Burma Independence Army, many Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, served in the British Burma Army. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. Under Japanese occupation, 170,000 to 250,000 civilians died.
The surrender of the Japanese brought a military administration to Burma. Without the support of the BNA, the government of the State of Burma quickly collapsed, and Ba Maw fled via Thailand to Japan, where he was captured later that year and was held in Sugamo Prison, Tokyo, until 1946. The British administration sought to try Aung San and other members of BIA for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. Lord Mountbatten realized that a trial was an impossibility considering Aung San’s popular appeal. After the war ended, the British Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith returned. The restored government established a political program that focused on physical reconstruction of the country and delayed discussion of independence.
After the liberation of Burma with the British took over Rangoon on May 6, 1945, normal postal services were gradually restored under the British Military Administration. Sixteen stamps of Burma from the 1938 definitive series were overprinted MILY ADMN by the Security Printing Press in Nasik, India, with denominations from 1 pie to 10 rupees. British civilian authorities took over the administration from the military on January 1, 1946, at which time fifteen 1938 stamps were issued in different colors. The British Burma authorities issued a set of four stamps designed by A.G.I. McGeogh on May 2, 1946, to commemorate the victory of the Allied Nations in WW II. These stamps were printed by the Nasik Security Printing Press of India and were the last stamp designs of British colonial rule in Burma.
Dorman-Smith was replaced by Sir Hubert Rance as the new governor on August 31, 1946,, and almost immediately after his appointment the Rangoon Police went on strike. The strike, starting in September 1946, then spread from the police to government employees and came close to becoming a general strike. Rance calmed the situation by meeting with Aung San and convincing him to join the Governor’s Executive Council along with other members of the AFPFL. The new executive council, which now had increased credibility in the country, began negotiations for Burmese independence, which were concluded successfully in London as the Aung San-Attlee Agreement on January 27, 1947.
The agreement left parts of the communist and conservative branches of the AFPFL dissatisfied, sending the Red Flag Communists led by Thakin Soe underground and the conservatives into opposition. Aung San also succeeded in concluding an agreement with ethnic minorities for a unified Burma at the Panglong Conference on February, 1947, celebrated since as ‘Union Day’. Shortly after, rebellion broke out in the Arakan led by the veteran monk U Seinda, and it began to spread to other districts. The popularity of the AFPFL, now dominated by Aung San and the Socialists, was eventually confirmed when it won an overwhelming victory in the April 1947 constituent assembly elections.
On July 19, 1947, U Saw engineered the assassination of Aung San and several members of his cabinet including his eldest brother Ba Win, the father of today’s National League for Democracy exile-government leader Dr Sein Win, while meeting in the Secretariat. Since then, July 19th has been commemorated since as Martyrs’ Day in Burma. Thakin Nu, the Socialist leader, was asked to form a new cabinet.
As there was a likelihood of Burma gaining independence, most of the offices were taken over by the Burmese interim government. The British authority could no longer issue new stamps. The January 1946 set of King George VI defnitives were overprinted in black or red with Interim Government in the Burmese language. These stamps were put on sale on October 1,1947 and were used until out of stock.
On January 4, 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Anti-British popular sentiment was so strong at the time that Burma opted not to join the Commonwealth of Nations, unlike India. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities. The geographical area encompassed by Burma derived from Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British.
The design of the 1948 Burma independence commemorative stamp issue was identical and followed in all details, the design of the 1946 carmine 2 annas Victory issue. This stamp depicts the guardian lion, but instead of King George VI in profile in the oval medallion one finds, facing front, the head and shoulders of Aung San, the architect of Burma’s freedom. First sold on January 6, 1948, the stamps were designed by A.G. I. McGeogh and printed by Thomas De la Rue & Company of London. The first stamps to be inscribed UNION OF BURMA were twelve values released on July 19, 1948, to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of Aung San and his cabinet members.
In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position he held for ten years. Among the Burmese to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of Aung San), who went on to become winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
On March 2, 1962, the military led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d’état, and the government has been under direct or indirect control by the military since then. Between 1962 and 1974, Myanmar was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general. Almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control under the Burmese Way to Socialism, which combined Soviet-style nationalization and central planning.
A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974. Until 1988, the country was ruled as a one-party system, with the General and other military officers resigning and ruling through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). During this period, Myanmar became one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. On July 7, 1962, the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant. Student protests in 1975, 1976, and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force. In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalized plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989.
SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989. Stamps had been inscribed UNION OF BURMA until 1973 and the last to bear the name SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF THE UNION OF BURMA had appeared on September 6, 1989. Since May 12, 1990, all stamps have been inscribed UNION OF MYANMAR.
Scott #1 was released by British Burma on April 1, 1937, by overprinting a 3 pies stamp of India BURMA in black. The stamp bearing a portrait of King George V is printed in slate and perforated 14.