THE return to the country of the so-called Balangiga bells looted by American troops in 1901 from a Samar town as war trophies after defeating — massacring, Filipino historians claim — Waray insurgents hugely raises President Duterte’s prestige not only in the country but even on the world stage.
Despite pathetic attempts by the Yellows, such as the blabbermouth Sen. Risa Hontiveros, to wrench off this feather in the President’s cap, I don’t think there is any doubt over Duterte’s crucial role in getting the US to return the bells, as I will discuss below.
Historians will all be reporting: “Under Duterte’s leadership and with his pressure on the US government, the Philippines after 117 years recovered very important symbols of its nationalist aspirations and its people’s sacrifices to establish an independent nation.”
This is a President that understands the subtle requirements for building a nation: symbols.
What hasn’t been given enough attention is the fact that his success in convincing the Americans to give the bells back to the Philippines strengthens even in a small way as another precedent, the efforts of over a dozen colonized nations to get their former colonial masters to return their own looted treasures.
The three-feet-tall 19th century church bells of course are far from the level — in value or antiquity — of, for instance, the looted ancient Parthenon sculptures Greece has been demanding for decades Great Britain to return, or the Chinese zodiac bronze heads that were at Beijing’s Summer Palace and stolen by the British and French troops in the 1860 so-called “Opium War,” which the Chinese have been demanding to be returned to China. A distinction might also be made of a “war trophy,” which the bells were, and treasures of a nation looted by a conquering army.
However, the principle — or the crime — is the same. A European colonizer or invading state takes as war booty a defeated nation’s property and keeps it in their museums, or as in the Balangiga case, in a US Air Force War museum. The Balangiga bells after all were not pistols or swords — the usual war trophies — but were religious artifacts of our Spanish colonial history, having been cast circa-1863, and were the property of the Franciscans whose coat of arms is even etched on them.
Many such looted artifacts, though, have become symbols for the recovery and building of national pride.
In Greece, where I was the Philippine ambassador during the Arroyo administration, mention “Elgin Marbles” to a Greek, and he will go into a fit of rage against Britain. The term refers to the ancient marble statues at the Parthenon temple in Athens, which the 7th Earl of Elgin had removed in the early 19th century, brought to London, and are now displayed at the British Museum.
Greece had been demanding their return since its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, but Britain has refused to oblige. There have been reports that Greece had even informed the European Union that it would Britain’s plan to exit the union if the Elgin Marbles are not returned.
Although the Americans of course wouldn’t admit it, the return of the Balangiga bells implicitly means some kind of apology for the thousands of Filipinos (estimates vary widely from 2,500 to 50,000) killed in Samar after the American general Jacob Smith issued an order to kill all persons who were capable of bearing arms in the island. His order, with the infamous line, “kill and burn, make Samar a howling wilderness” was in retaliation for the attack by Filipino revolutionaries in the town that resulted in 74 US infantry killed.
The return also means that the US is willing to bend backwards to respect Philippine aspirations — after 61 years.
The return of the bells will — or at least I hope — encourage our scholars and media to present to the public a more accurate (revised?) history of the US occupation of the Philippines, that led to at least 200,000 Filipino civilians killed and to the creation of a colonial economy and exploitative social structure that have been a big factor for our poverty.
It was renowned historian the Jesuit Fr. Horacio de la Costa of the Ateneo de Manila University who first asked the Americans in 1958 to return the bells by writing to the US 13th Air Force’s command’s historian Chip Ward at Clark Air Force Base, claiming that the bells were the property of the Franciscans and that they should be returned to the Philippines. The request was followed up by a group of American Franciscans in the Philippines who also wrote Ward. Despite much their praying for God to convince the Americans, nothing came out of these religious efforts.
President Fidel Ramos in the 1990s asked his ambassador to the US Raul Rabe to quietly ask the Clinton administration for the recovery of the bells, but was told that it required an Act of Congress to do so.
Ramos in fact made a weird proposal. As reported by the Associated Press, he said that that one of the two big bells should be sent to the Philippines, and the second kept in the US military museum. Each of these two bells would be cut in half and one-half of each bell would be sent to the other country. The two halves would then be welded together.
“And then we end up with two pairs that are almost identical to the original,” Ramos said.
The Americans didn’t even bother to comment on Ramos’ proposal.
The Senate itself tried to ask the US to return the bells; first, through Senate Resolution 1993 in 2002 asking then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to undertake negotiations for the return of the bells. In 2007, the Senate passed Resolution 177, “expressing the sense of the Senate for the return to the Philippines of the Balangiga Bells.”
As a result of the efforts of the Arroyo administration, three US congressmen sponsored a resolution in the US Congress urging then US President Bush to authorize the return of the church bells. However, the resolution could not be voted on before that Congress adjourned in January 2009.
There are no reports at all that President Aquino’s ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia, and his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario ever raised the issue of the Balangiga bells to their American counterparts.
Duterte made it a national, urgent demand for the return of the bells when he — to most people’s surprise — expressed passion on the issue in his state of the nation address last year, the only president to have included the concern in this annual speech devoted to reporting on the President’s accomplishments in the past year.
He said the bells are “reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process.”
Give us back
“Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yun sa amin (Please return them. It is painful for us),” Duterte had said. In that event, Malacañang’s PTV crew panned their cameras on the row of diplomats listening to Duterte, and focused on the US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, whose eyebrows rose.
Reacting to the speech, Jose Cuisia, Manila’s former envoy to Washington, warned Duterte’s “outburst might not result in a more favorable treatment of that request.”
Duterte didn’t let up on the issue. In August, Duterte said that he would not talk to top USofficials who had expressed the desire to meet him, unless the Balangiga bells were returned to the Philippines. He said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had asked to meet him for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Duterte said that before anything else, the United States should first return the Balangiga bells that its soldiers took more than a century ago. “Kung hindi nila isauli ‘yang Balangiga bells, wala tayong pag-usapan (If they won’t return the Balangiga bells, then there’s nothing to talk about). I will not [talk to them],” Duterte said.
Meanwhile, a newspaper reported the other day: “The United States-Philippine Society, a US-based group of Filipino and American businessmen will be funding the manufacture and installation of replicas of the Balangiga bells in Wyoming. Among the most notable founding members and officers of the USPS are former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, Filipino-American businesswoman Loida Nicolas-Lewis and former ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia.”