FROM A to Z SERIES
I had a theory why the military government changed
the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. I reasoned that they
were so isolationist, and they were getting so much heat from the rest
of the world regarding their heavy handed and repressive ways of doing
things, that they adopted a name that no one could pronounce so we wouldn’t
think about them as much. I thought the same thing when Mobutu changed
the name of his country (and it was literally “his” in his heyday) from
Congo and Zaire: to distract the rest of the world.
But then I heard someone speaking Burmese and naming
his country, and do you know what he said? “Burma!” Spelled
(in Burmese) “Myanmar,” pronounced “Burma.” As Mark Twain often said:
“I dunno.” For purposes of this article though, I’ll use the two
forms interchangeably. Myanmar, Burma, remember please that in Burmese
they sound the same.
This has been, for me at least, a difficult country
to relate to. Politically closed for over thirty five years, alphabet
I can’t read, language I can’t understand, no immigration to speak of.
I’ve never met anyone from Burma. There are no Burmese restaurants
in any of the places I’ve ever been. So I got my information for
this article from the usual sources: the encyclopedia, the almanac.
But the coins are another story. Very interesting.
And, anomalously for a politically closed country, many of them are available
to collect. There are a couple of references one can use as well,
though they don’t always agree with each other, especially as regards the
earliest coins. I used “Oriental Coins and their Values, Vol. 1,
the Ancient and Classical World,” by Michael Mitchiner, and “The Coins
and Banknotes of Burma,” by M. Robinson and L.A. Shaw.
GEOGRAPHY IS DESTINY
The first thing that must be noticed is that this
Texas-sized country is more than half mountains. Almost all of its
borders are mountainous. What do mountainous borders remind you of?
Smuggling of course, and this type of commerce is practiced by people living
on the borders between Burma and all of its neighbors: Thailand, Laos,
China, India, and Bangladesh.
The mountains are heavily forested, and have been
famous for their elephants, tigers, and other wildlife, not to mention
the tropical hardwoods like teak and mahogany. Timber cutting is
big business in Myanmar, but its a big country, and there’s still a lot
of forest left to cut.
Between the mountains lies the long Irawaddy River
and its valley. The Irawaddy runs through most of the north-south
length of the country, not counting the 350 miles of Tenasserim that sticks
out like a tail to the south. And out to the west of that odd piece
of territory lie hundreds islands, among which the Andamans are the best
known to us coin people.
This far flung and disparate land is peopled by
a number of unrelated ethnic groups who arrived in waves of immigration
and conquest over the last 2000 years, settling in different parts of the
country, dominating and being dominated in turn. The last group to
arrive, the Burmans, conquered the country, but by no means did they win
the hearts and minds of the other peoples who live there. The Kachins,
Karens, Shans, and other groups feel no kinship with the Burmans, nor is
there love to be lost. These peoples tend to be concentrated in their
own (mostly mountainous) states, which had made up the former Union of
Burma, the constitution of which guaranteed the right of secession to the
ethnic states. The prevention of secession was given as a major reason
for the military coup of 1962. Separatist tendencies have tended
to find their outlet in armed struggle, and a never ending ethnic secessionist
war is an integral part of modern Burmese history.
My sources say nothing of the most ancient period
of prehistory in Burma, but one finds paleolithic remnants in neighboring
Thailand, so why not Burma as well? Very little in the way of archeology
has been done in Burma since the 1962 coup.
The Irrawaddy valley, with its broad and fertile
fields, has been drawing immigrants for thousands of years. The earliest
indentifiable group for which there are relics are the Mons, who occupied
Tenasserim and the lower Irrawaddy valley and were related to the Khmers
of Cambodia. According to legend, the great Indian king and Buddhist
saint Ashoka sent a mission to the Mon capital, the port of Thaton, not
far from Rangoon, in the third century BC. The Mons became Buddhists
thereafter, and a lively trade and cultural exchange developed between
the Mon land and the subcontinent. At that time the Mon kingdom was
referred to as Suvarnabhumi, the Golden land, after its most important
There are no coins of this early period of the Mon
During roughly the same period another people, the
“Tibeto-Burmese” Pyu, migrated from the northwest, and occupied the Irrawaddy
valley from the Mon land northwards. Pyu legend places their arrival
around 400 BC, but the archeology dates only from the first to fifth centuries
AD. During the height of Pyu power the main city was Srikshetra,
whose ruins lie near Prome, about 150 miles north of Rangoon/Yangon.
Coins start appearing in the lower Irrawaddy valley
in sites dated between 200-500 CE. Some are attributed to the Pyus
of Srikshetra and others to the Mon. All are silver, with the exception
of only a few copper examples, and those of doubtful authenticity.
The “Mon” coins typically portray a Hindu lingam
(male symbol) inside a temple on one side, and other Hindu or Buddhist
symbols on the other. The metrology gives a full unit of 9-10 grams,
with fractions down to the hundredth.
The “Pyu” types have sometimes a temple similar
to that of the Mon pieces, but with a bunch of dots replacing the lingam,
often with wavy lines below indicating water and sun and moon symbols above.
This type is often referred to as the Srivatsa symbol. There are
two common designs on the other side of the coins. One is a design
of two triangles arranged point to point, which is usually interpreted
as a drum, but could also be a stool or even a cosmic schematic.
The other is a radiant sun rising over water. The unit started out
at 11 grams, reducing to 9 over the life of the coinage, and there are
fractional pieces, again down to the hundredth.
Typically, these coins have been found in hoards,
usually a single type to a hoard, with only a few types represented by
more than one hoard. All are fairly scarce, but several types are
or have been available for purchase from specialist dealers such as Scott
Semans and Robert Tye.
Though it is obvious that these coins come from
southeast Asia, and many hail from Burma in particular, smuggled out to
Thailand and dispensed to the rest of the world by curio dealers there,
I, personally, would consider the specific classification of this or that
type to the Mons or the Pyus as provisional at best, and with a timeline
of several centuries to muck around in no one can be entirely sure.
These coins illustrate a problem in the relations between the collecting
hobby and scientific archeology. With no inscriptions or written
records to correllate, the only clue as to where these coins come from
and who made them would come from their provenance. But the fact
that the coins were directed to the market rather than to the scientists
has, by default, stripped them of that data, as there is, unfortunately,
approximately no fruitful interaction between the scientists and the collector
market. Though attributions have been made for these coins on the
basis of recorded hoard finds; these types to the Pyus, those to the Mons,
virtually all of the pieces available for purchase hail from who knows
where, and any additional light their stratigraphy could shed on their
origins is forever lost.
The ambiguity in attribution is complicated by the
fact that both the Mon and the Pyu polities were overcome by the Khmer
kingdom of Funan, centered in Cambodia, during the period in which these
coins appear. It seems reasonable to me, in the way of throwing suppositions
around, that both the “Mon” coins and the “Pyu” coins could be regional
issues of the expanded Funan empire of the 5-8th centuries. Without
further archeological correlation we can’t know for sure.
It would be so nice if there were some mechanism
of cooperation between the scientific side and the commercial side, where
somehow ancient coins, etc. could be studied scientifically and then some
of them be released into a more disciplined and less secretive market for
the purpose of private enjoyment, perhaps with some kind of tracking mechanism
that could retrieve the things for further study on occasion.
I can’t stop dreaming. Can you?
Meanwhile, in the west of modern Myanmar, on the
strip of coastline extending southward from the Bangladesh border now called
Arakan, another state took shape, the Chandra kingdom. It’s people
probably related to the Pyus, the Chandra state took shape during the 2nd
century BCE and extended through several dynasties until the 8th century
CE. During the 7th century the state split into four parts, Vaisali
and Parapura in the south and Pattikera and Harikela in the north, the
latter with a capital at Chittagong, now in Bangladesh.
Chandra coins are overwhelmingly of silver, with
a few gold and copper pieces mentioned in archeological literature.
Early coins are compact, with “normal” (for the period) designs of conch
shells and temples (interpreted by many as a trident, though to me the
temple derivation is clear), though in a very distinctive style compared
to the Mon and Pyu coins. Perhaps a little later the recumbent humped
bull appears, and this became the badge of the state. The “unit”
seems to be about 7 grams, lighter than the Mon and Pyu coins, and there
are quarter and half units as well. These early coins seem to be
extremely rare, and have been offered rarely, if at all, by the specialist
Pattikera and Harikela coins started out in the
7th century as continuations of the earlier Chandra series, and are just
as rare as their forbears. In the mid-8th century Harikela absorbed
Pattikera. A little later the compact coins were replaced by large
diameter bracteates, which followed the same course of development as their
German counterparts; first with designs of both sides each showing through
to the other, and later with the trident/temple die discarded and only
the bull die retained. A few of these large bracteates were on the
market about a decade ago, but they’re long gone now. Classic example
of a single hoard that came on the market and disappeared. I wonder
where they came from? The archeologists, as usual, are gnashing their
teeth and cursing the commercial impulse.
During the 9th century a new wave of migrants entered
the Irrawaddy valley from the north. These people were the Burmans.
The newcomers settled the central region of the valley around the present
day city of Mandalay, about 350 miles north of Rangoon. The Burmans
adopted some aspects of the culture of Mons and Pyus they displaced, but
they did not pick up on the idea of coinage.
The Burmans consolidated their holdings into a kingdom
with a capital at Pagan, about 100 miles southwest of Mandalay on the Irrawaddy.
The Pagan kingdom expanded south and west (the easy direction - eastward
was mountainous jungle inhabited by fierce Shan mountaineers). Around
1044 the Burmese king Anawrahta captured the Mon kingdom of Thaton at the
mouth of the Irrawaddy, thus gaining the possibility of international trade.
The Harikela kingdom went belly up sometime during
the 11th century. Much of its Burmese territory was taken by the
ethnically Thai kingdom of Nanchao, centered in the southern Chinese province
of Yunnan. By this time the use of coinage had ceased throughout
Burma. Trade was conducted by barter, partially accounted in cowries,
and partly in metal ingots, including silver, gold, copper, lead, and tin.
The Burmans brought with them a standard weight, the kyat, of a bit more
than 16 grams, that has descended into the monetary denomination today.
The Pagan kingdom fell victim to the southernmost
foray of the Mongols. Pagan itself was taken and destroyed in 1287.
The Mongols didn’t stay long. The steamy jungles did not suit them,
and they were harried by the feisty Shan from their mountain strongholds.
In the wake of the Mongol retreat various Shan principalities came and
went in northern Burma, while in the south a new Mon kingdom coalesced,
with its capital at Pegu in Tenasserim.
In the Burmese context "Pagan" is a place rather
than a religion. The first ethnically Burmese empire had its capital
in the city of that name, enduring about three centuries before being extinguished
by the Mongols. During the Pagan period Buddhism became firmly established
as the majority religion, and many of the cardinal aspects of modern Burmese
Numismatically, the Pagan period has little to show.
Stone inscriptions and the accounts of Chinese travellers state that trade
was accounted in gold, silver, and copper, but these went by weight, the
standard being the kyat of about 16 grams. Cowries are also mentioned.
One 12th century Chinese account speaks of crescent shaped ingots, there
is a record from the 16th century mentioning different shapes of silver
ingots, and yet another mentioning some official regulation of the silver/copper
ratio in circulating "money," but no examples of these things have come
to light in modern times. Chinese coins did not seem to circulate
in Burma, so for the long period from the 8th to the 17th century we have,
from a collecting standpoint, more or less nothing.
After the fall of Pagan Burma broke up into principalities,
with a number of princes of various nationalities contending against each
other. This unstable situation endured for more than two centuries.
Several Shan states dominated northern Burma, Tenasserim and the south
were Mon territory, and the central Irrawady valley was the habitat of
the Burmans, who at that time were weak and picked on by their Mon and
The situation changed in the 15th century, when
the Burmese king Minkyinyo of Toungu took advantage of unsettled conditions
among his neighbors to enlarge his domains. Descendants continued
the Burmese expansion as far as Chiengmai in Thailand and Vientiane in
Mitchiner assigned a few tin coins to the Toungu
kings, but they bear such a strong resemblance to the 17th-18th century
coins of Pegu as to arouse doubtful thoughts within my bubbling brain.
Only a few examples have been found, context uncertain. How can one
Regarding the Pegu (and Tenasserim) coins, most
are tin, a few are copper, and all are extremely rare. It seems likely
to me that coinage as we know it was simply an occasional conceit, perhaps
coinlike objects were made as religious offerings, or perhaps the known
decorated discs of metal were simply another convenient shape of ingot.
The tiny quantity surviving, as compared with the well known bullet coins
of neighboring Thailand, or the similar but different tin (and gold) coinage
of Malaya to the south, leads me to the conclusion that most of the business
in Pegu and Tenasserim during the 16th-18th centuries was conducted, as
previously, without the mediation of coinage.
In the Irrawaddy valley, home of the resolutely
non-coin using Burmans, we have records describing the use of a copper-lead
mixture, called ganza, as a staple of trade, going by weight. We
are told that ganza traded as ingots and hacked up bits, but we don't see
any examples of either anywhere. 17th century accounts tell of the
use of Indian gold and silver coins and Spanish "dollars."
In the late 17th-early 18th century ganza began
to depreciate, and we are told that people compensated by increasing the
lead content, which of course only increased the rate of inflation.
The eventual response, when it was time to "start again," was the appearance
of relatively pure silver. There was still no central guaranteeing
authority, and the caveat emptor status quo remained in force. From
this period (mid-18th century) date the so-called "flower money." silver
lumps. These were struck without weight or purity standard, it being
thought that the characteristic starburst patterns of the surface, probably
created by blowing on a molten blob as it cooled, guaranteed some level
Flower money was supposedly called "yowetni," but
when I asked a Thai dealer for some of it he didn't know what I was talking
about. He knew "flower money" though. Cost was quite high,
only managed to get about 8 pieces, various sizes, most of them 60 grams
or more. That was over ten years ago, and I haven't seen any since.
There are other types of silver lumps from various
parts of Burma and datable to the 18th century or later. There are
thin roundish things with a bubble blown out of the center, of not particularly
pure silver, called "Shan shell money," "tok," or, when the bubble is broken,
"pig mouth money." Scarce in any variety, they are rarely found with
Thai countermarks on the edge. Small ingots of almost pure silver
are also known: vaguely snail-shaped pieces attributed to the Shan, and
small kettle-drum shapes probably made for the China trade.
At some point during the 17th century the so-called
"opium weights" began to appear. These are animal shaped brass objects,
roughly hewing to the kyat standard, with fractions to the sixteenth and
smaller and multiples to the hundred and greater. It is certain that
some of these were quasi-government issues, and highly likely that others
are private creations. Various different animal models are known,
elephant being most popular and fairly rare, "lion" next, and "duck" (or
chicken, or "hantha" - Burmese form of divine Hindu bird Garuda) being
most common. There has been some market in these things, and some
books written. The "normal" size is 2 kyats (32 grams), and "ducks"
and "lions" of that weight are fairly common and inexpensive. Larger
and smaller sizes can be found, but the largest have been very difficult
in recent years. I've seen "counterfeit" elephants made for the credulous
among us, and even oddities such as snakes, goddesses, and horses, all
doubtful looking to me.
Meanwhile, in the west, Arakan was going its own
way. Independent during most of the period of the 15th-18th centuries,
with a mixed Muslim and Buddhist population, Arakanese culture displayed
an interesting mixture of traits. Among these was the use of coinage.
The coins are obviously based on prototypes issued by the sultans of Bengal,
the neighbor to the west, and indeed they start out in the 16th century
with legends all in Arabic. Subsequent coins begin to show Bengali
legends along with the Arabic, a trait which was also borrowed from Bengal.
You have to be able to read these coins to distinguish them from Bengali
issues, but you might find 100 or 1000 Bengali coins to one of Arakan.
Still later, Arakanese (variant of Burmese) legends start to appear, and
by the reign of Narabadgiyi, 1638-45, Arakanese is all that is left, with
identical legends appearing on both sides of the coins. Almost all
of the later coins are dated, so if you can find that date you can "easily"
attribute the coin.
There have been some Arakanese coins on the market
from time to time. Almost all of them have been silver "rupees,"
reasonably well struck, rarely with damage, usually of the later kings.
Prices have been typically in the $50.00 plus range, and I haven't seen
any in the last five years or so.
THE FALL OF TOUNGU
Large empires are hard to keep track of, and the
transfer of the Toungu capital in 1634 from Pegu in the south to Ava, near
Mandalay in central Burma, allowed the Mon to regroup. A century
of navel gazing ensued in Toungu, while the Mon traded with the Europeans
who had begun to show up on the coasts, exchanging tin and spices for guns.
In 1730 the resurgent Mon invaded the Irrawaddy valley, overrunning Ava
and bringing down the curtain on the Toungu dynasty.
Their victory was shortlived however. The
son of a village headman rallied the Burmans and defeated the Mon, destroying
their capital, Pegu. Intent on restoring the grandeur that had belonged
to the Burmese in the past, he took his armies into Thailand. He
took the name of Alaungpaya, by which term the dynasty of his successors
Burmese expansion continued. The third of
the Alaungpaya line, Hsinbyushin, overthrew the Ayuthia dynasty in Thailand
in 1767. Dying in 1776, he was followed by two rulers of little account
before the advent of the next ruler of stature, who has been known to later
generations as Bodawpaya (Great Grandfather).
A wild and enterprising king, Bodawpaya occupied
and annexed Arakan in 1784,giving him a border with the British in India.
He next turned east and invaded Thailand, with inconclusive results.
Returning home after several years, he embarked on a grandiose building
spree which drained the treasury, and indulged in the persecution of religions
other than his own. His disruptions produced rebellions, which he
lustily suppressed. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he died
He seemed to take the Arakanese habit of coining
money to heart, striking some coins there in his own name after his conquest.
If you find any Arakanese coins at all they're as likely to be his as those
of some previous native king.
Back home in his palace Bodawpaya ruminated on the
possibilities inherent in the concept of seignorage, and came to the conclusion
that it was a good idea. He entered into negotiations with the British
in Calcutta, with the result that a couple of silver patterns were struck
using designs borrowed from 1300 year old pyu coins. I've seen pictures
of several different specimens, but have never been close to an actual
specimen. They are exceedingly rare.
Mint machinery was duly purchased and brought to
Rangoon,and in 1797 copper "pice" were struck with the "two fishes" design,
and dated the Burmese equivalent of 1782. These were made in several
different sizes and weights, with and without holes, and there are a number
of minor design varieties. They looked very promising, but the king
insisted on putting them out at an absurdly inflated value, with the inevitable
result that they were not accepted. Contemporary British accounts
tell us that after toying with the idea of using severity to force their
use the experiment was abandoned after a few weeks, and the situation returned
to the status quo ante of "flower money" and "opium weights." The
two fishes coins are scarce today, but I have had a few, therefore they
are not rare.
After the death of Bodawpaya his expansionist policies
were continued by his successors. Assam and Manipur were taken an
annexed, but in 1824 an attempted invasion of Chittagong, held by the British
turned out to be more than the Burmese could chew. The British occupied
Rangoon and took Arakan and Tenasserim. Rangoon was returned on payment
of a large indemnity, but the two coastal possessions were gone.
There are reports that some coins were issued during
the 1820s-40s, but no examples are known. The kings durings this
period ruled capriciously, and two of them were deposed because of insanity.
Corruption flourished, and there were several revolts. In 1851 the
governor of Pegu began treating some British traders badly, and, British
protests achieving no relief, a second Anglo-Burmese war ensued.
A palace coup in Rangoon brought to power an anti-war prince, Mindon to
the throne, and the hostilities ceased, though a treaty was not concluded.
The first half of the nineteenth century was
inauspicious for Burma. A series of erratic rulers produced an advance
of internal chaos as well as periodic conflict with the British in India.
The British, for their part, were infatuated with commercial possibilities.
In Burma they saw teak, mahogany, ivory, and markets for the products of
British mills and factories. In short, they saw opportunity, and
at that time they were not averse to the use of military force to advance
Pushed by the businessmen, and taking advantage
of an unfortunate incident, British forces occupied the delta of the Irrawaddy
River in 1852. The crisis produced a palace coup, bringing a new
king, Mindon Min, to the throne. Mindon turned out to be a level
headed guy. While not formalizing the British seizure of his southern
territory, he maintained peace and permitted trade between his subjects
and the interlopers.
There was a tradition in Burma that a strong king
would found a new capital, and with the old regime discredited by its losses
to the British, Mindon decided to uphold this practice. His new city
was Mandalay, a few miles upriver from the old capital, Amarapura, with
its palace built on an artificial mountain built to Mindon's specifications.
Mindon encouraged some degree of modernization,
and among his reforms was the introduction of the first true coinage in
Burma in over a thousand years.
Mindon's coinage affairs began with a few of what
are probably presentation strikes. These are relatively crudely struck
silver coins with a bird obverse and Burmese legends on the reverse.
Several varieties are known, all dated the equivalent of 1852-3, and all
very rare. Contemporary records make no mention of their use in commerce,
referring only to the use of metal and weights as before. These are
KM11, KM12, and KM15. May I suggest that the numbering is misleading.
The "coins" were struck about ten years before KM10, etc., and should properly
be listed before the common peacock coinage of the 1862 "reform."
Around 1862 a Frenchman, attempting to gain a timber
concession, proposed the acquisition of minting machinery from Paris.
The British got wind of the negotiations and sent their guy over to preempt
the deal. The British representative, providing a better offer, obtained
the contract, and though Paris was specified as the source of the machines,
they were in the end supplied by the Heaton mint in Birmingham. These
were set up in Mandalay and used to produce the first definitive coinage
of modern Burma.
The first of the new coins were the familiar and
common peacock coins. Backdated to Mindon's accession year of 1852,
they are denominated as kyats and fractions. This is a misnomer,
as the traditional kyat was a weight of a bit more than 16 grams, and the
new coins were supposed to weigh 11.56 grams, exactly the same as Indian
rupees, no more, no less. In practice this was only an ideal to be
striven for, but by this stroke Burma definitely entered the British sphere
of influence. There are some minor varieties of this series, as well as
rare patterns, but representative specimens of the silver peacock coins,
are fairly easy to find, and the kyat/rupee is actually common. The
first set issued was the kyat, 5 mu (half kyat), mat (quarter kyat), and
mu (eighth kyat), the last with at least three different weight and size
varieties listed by Robinson and Shaw in "The Coins and Banknotes of Burma,"
none of which are listed in the SCWC.
There are a number of varieties of both the obverse
and the reverse of these pecock coins. This is aside from the well
known and extremely rare facing peacock patterns. The most obvious
obverse variety has the ground almost touching the denticles at the rim.
It is scarce. Robinson and Sahw list three varieties of reverse lettering.
In examining a few of the kyats I had lying around I found another one.
The oddity of the series is the tiny silver pe.
Dies for this coin were not included in the shipment from the Heaton mint,
and they were probably, though not certainly obtained from the mint in
Calcutta. Several varieties were struck, with the run probably beginning
later than for the other coins and ending earlier. All are fairly
One should take the fineness given in the SCWC with
a grain of salt. Production of the silver for the blanks, and of
the blanks themselves, was a fully Burmese operation, and the assay would
not have been as exacting as it was in Calcutta. One can therefore
expect some variation in the alloy, though flagrantly debased specimens
of these coins are not met with.
All of the silver coins exist with a stippled obverse
field, considered to be rare, though the kyat at least has showed up a
number of times in auctions during my lifetime. Robinson and Shaw
state that the stippling is not in the die, but was added by hand later.
They opine that it was done to prepare the coin for enamelling, and I have
seen the regular coins so treated, though not the stippled variety.
Getting the coins to circulate among a populace
used to barter was an interesting problem. One of Mindon's methods
was to establish cash prizes for Buddhist novices who succeeded in passing
their religious examinations and becoming monks. Many thousands of
monks were ordained every year, and by this device substantial quantities
of coins were distributed.
Gold strikes are known for all of the "1852" pecock
denominations, but there is debate and doubt regarding their use in commerce.
Their main use seems to have been as presentation pieces. The gold
mu seems to be the most likely candidate for a circulating coin, a notion
supported by the fairly common occurrence of gold plated silver mus, presumably
produced contemporaneously for fraudlent purposes.
Copper coins of quarter pe denomination were produced
soon after the mint opened. The dies were locally engraved, and two
varieties are known. The same coin was also struck in iron, and supposedly
were paid out to helpless people without influence. Though they claim
to be quarter pes, they supposedly passed in the market at a third of that
value. The coppers are scarce in comparison with the silver kyat,
while the iron variety is rare.
A set of gold coins was issued dated 1866 and bearing
the mythical guardian lion "Chinthe." Denominations are pe, mu, 2
mu 1 pe (mat), 5 mu, and kyat, with the weights of the larger coins corresponding
exactly to the Indian mohur and its fractions. Only the gold mat
saw any real circulation. It is scarce, while the other Chinthe gold
coins are very rare.
Mindon issued a few more coins in 1868-69.
These were crude lead eighth and quarter pes, with a rabbit on the obverse,
and a good sized copper "2 pe" or quarter anna (Robinson and Shaw call
it a "half pe") with a Chinthe type. This piece has, instead of a
denomination, the Burmese legend "Always keep with you," and Robinson and
Shaw opine that it may be an amulet rather than a coin. This copper
and the lead pieces are all quite scarce.
King Mindon died in 1878 without naming a successor.
One of his 70 or so children, a son named Thibaw, came to power.
Thibaw was controlled by his mother and his wife, and the two women and
he conducted a capricious and tyrannical reign of seven years. During
this period a corrupt lottery was instituted which bankrupted a large sector
of the population of Mandalay and caused a coin shortage.
The silver peacock coins continued to be struck
using the old, worn dies. Thibaw had only two coins issued on his
own account: a copper quarter pe and a gold 5 mu, both with the type of
a To, a mythical beast with a lion's body and the head of a deer.
The copper coins circulated, while the gold seems to have been for presentation
only and is very rare. Several varieties of the copper are known,
as well as versions in brass and tin, which are described by Robinson and
Shaw as contemporary private strikes (not counterfeits) made for their
own enrichment by people with connections such as certain abbots and high
government officials. These coins were in common circulation in Mandalay
and passed at about 75% of their face value.
Thibaw was nutty and despotic, but as far as politics
went he turned out to be not to smart. With the southern half of
his country occupied by the British you'd think he would take them into
account in his calculations, but it seems he didn't really calculate, but
rather did as he pleased. Thus it was that he made a deal with the
French in 1885 to set up a national bank, and how could you annoy the British
more than to do a money deal with the French?
Well, there was something. Thibaw started
arguing with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation about the royalties
paid on the teak harvest. The British claimed they were upholding
the contracts as written, but Thibaw went ahead and assessed a very large
fine. The Corporation asked for arbitration but the king refused.
In Novemeber he issued a proclamation urging his subjects to "drive the
British heretics into the sea."
A British expeditionary force invaded within a week.
Two weeks later it took Mandalay. Thibaw was deposed and sent with
his family into exile in Bombay, where he stayed until his death in 1916.
In January, 1886 Thibaw's former domain was annexed to the British dominion
in southern Burma, and in November the whole country was attached as a
province of British India, with its capital in Rangoon, which had been
in British hands for decades. In political and numismatic terms Burma
The Burmese did not appreciate being tied to India,
and although public works were undertaken and some economic development
occurred, administration from far off India was difficult, and the crime
rate grew. Agitation for independence began to take during the 1920s,
and various schemes began to be floated for the separation of Burma from
India. An agreement was made in 1935 and an autonomous, democratic
government was set up in Burma in 1937 with Dr. Ba Maw as prime minister.
The effect of this change in administration on the
coinage was nil, although there were some changes in the circulation of
paper money. Indian coins continued to circulate, but whereas formerly
the Indian banknotes had circulated without restriction from their various
offices, one of which was located in Rangoon. In the new system special
banknotes were issued for Burma, and while Indian notes continued to be
accepted there, the Burmese notes were not correspondingly legal tender
in India. Shortages of coin brought about the issue of several series
of "coin notes." These had pictures of coins on them and were treated
as coin in both accounting and law.
Inside autonomous Burma things were looking somewhat
promising, but then World War II came with the Japanese invasion in 1942.
The arrival of the Japanese was initially greeted with pleasure by many
Burmese, who saw them as liberators from colonial oppression. The
Japanese set up a puppet government headed by Ba Maw, which included such
heroes of the independence struggle as Aung San, Ne Win, and U Nu.
But the destruction and looting of the invasion and the arrogance and brutality
of the occupation turned the country against the invaders and guerilla
The Japanese issued the common occupation notes
in large numbers, producing a severe inflation. Large quantities
of unused notes remained in bank vaults when the war ended. There
were plans for a banknote issue by the Ba Maw puppet government, and specimens
were prepared, but these notes were never issued. There were no coins
made during the occupation. The three patterns listed in the SCWC
are Japanese products, similar to those planned for Indonesia and now listed
under Japan. The date "2602" is incorrectly described as being of
the Bangkok era. Actually it is from the Japanese Shinto calendar.
I don't think anyone is going to run into any of these patterns.
The postwar transition from the Japanese notes was
accomplished in a little more than a year, mediated by the introduction
of Indian notes overprinted by the British Military Administration.
A Burma Currency Board, based in London, was authorized in 1946 and was
in operation the following year. Independence was in the air, and
Aung San looked to become president of a free Burma until his assassination
in January, 1947. U Nu took his place, and negotiations with Britain
were concluded later that year. Independence Day, set by astologers
as most auspicious, was January 4, 1948.
The astrologers would appear to have been mistaken,
for almost immediately a pair of rebellions broke out, with communists
trying to sieze the country and the Karen minority trying to secede.
The government beat back the rebels, but did not crush them, and conflict
has continued on ethnic and political grounds to this very day.
The first banknotes were issued in 1948, denominated
in rupees. Coins, denominated in pe (equivalent to Indian annas)
followed, dated 1949-51, with a device of the Chinthe as had previously
been seen on Thibaw's coppers. The coins were struck in London, and
are not hard to find, though choice uncirculated specimens have been rather
elusive in recent years. A handful of proofs were made, which I have
never seen. Counterfeits are known of the 1950 8 pe. The metal
is wrong and there are design irregularities.
In 1952 the name of the major denomination was chaneged
from rupee to kyat, a decimal system was adopted, the Burma Currency Board
was replaced by the Union Bank of Burma, and formal ties to the British
pound were severed. New decimal coins from 1 pya through 1 kyat,
all with the Chinthe device, were minted in London, and as these went into
circulation the pe denominated coins were gradually withdrawn. Of
the so called "hybrid" 8 pe of 1952 Robinson and Shaw have nothing to say.
I've had the coin in circulated condition. It is rather difficult
The Chinthe decimal coins continued in fitful issue
through 1965, with small numbers of proofs noted for nearly every year.
With a few exceptions, 1955 1 pya for example, they were not well stocked
by dealers, and it will be difficult to build a date set. I've never
seen any of the proofs. The 1962 1 kyat, issued only as a proof,
might be the key to the series, though perhaps other dates are just as
rare. I have no data.
In response to threats of cecession by some of the
Shan regions, the Burmese army under General Ne Win siezed power in 1962.
Under the cover of a socialist ideological framework, the military government
embarked on a series of confiscatory financial manipulations and political
repressions that have continued, essentially unabated, to this day.
At irregular intervals over this time high denomination banknotes have
been demonetized, the expressed purpose being to impoverish the rich.
As a result of this continual disruption of commerce Burma/Myanmar is near
the bottom of the economic heap in southeast Asia.
Faced with inflation that had made the cost of producing
the Chinthe coins higher than their value, the military government issued
a set of aluminum minors in 1966. Struck in East Berlin, these are
rather hard to find. Only a few other coins were issued from then
until now, struck at a new facility in Burma, and all tied to the FAO coin
program of the United Nations. These are not the most common of the
FAO series, but they can be obtained. Though the country is officially
"closed," the border with Thailand is very porous, and everything of potential
value gets out. The 1998 collector coins with the animals on them
were poorly marketed, overpriced, as all modern commemoratives are these
days, and are not found in dealer trays.
There are some banknotes known to have been issued
by insurgent groups, and it is said that gold and silver in various forms
still circulate in the mountains where the rebels operate. The gold
"coins" of the "Patriotic Liberation Army" are actually fundraising tokens
struck in Europe by the party of U Nu. A few of the little mus have
been on the market, but the others have not shown up.