Siling Labuyo: The politics of the Balangiga Bells

October 5, 2017

 

Like an urban legend, the myth about the Balangiga Bells being returned to the Philippines soon has been resurrected. Giving life to the story was no less than President Rodrigo Duterte who has made the pronouncement during his second state of the nation (SONA) address.

During the SONA in July, Duterte appealed to the U.S. Congress to authorize his newfound buddy, US President Donald Trump to return the bells. Trump is yet to issue a ringing endorsement of such appeal. Duterte’s entreaty was perhaps timed perfectly given the fact that the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expired at the end of September but has since been extended via a continuing resolution. The previous NDAA has a provision banning the return of war memorial objects to foreign countries.

The problem with Duterte’s appeal is that no American congressman or representative has picked up on it and offer as an amendment. In its current form, H.R. 2810 the National Defense Appropriation Act for FY 2018 has over 200 proposed amendments but none of them to “authorize the president to return the bells.” Some well-meaning US military retirees helping the Philippine government have approached Sen. John McCain of Arizona and have also written Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming for their help in getting such language in the bill. Perhaps McCain will do it when the US Senate tackles the bill and reconcile their versions.

The fact that Rep. Cheney did not offer an amendment at the Lower House to make it happen probably means that the bells ringing will only be heard in F.E. Warren Air Base, in Cheyenne, Wyoming where two of the three bells taken from Balangiga are located. The other bell is reportedly located in a US Army 9th Infantry Division’s museum in Camp Red Cloud, South Korea.

Duterte’s earlier tirades against the United States and President Barack Obama has most likely offended many of these congressional representatives who abhor Duterte’s human rights record. In such a short span in office, Duterte’s War on Drugs has produced the kind of effect (i.e. extra judicial killings, summary executions) that would turn-off majority of the American people and doing something nice for him (like returning the bells) will not only get a “no!” but perhaps a more resounding, “hell, no!” But that could change if Duterte could convince North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

Rep. Cheney is former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter. Dick Cheney has a bad history with the Philippines during the bases treaty negotiations back in 1991 when he was the Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush. Sent to the Philippines to negotiate an extension of the Military Bases Agreement, Cheney asked to have an audience with then President Cory Aquino but was told to see his counterpart instead, General Fidel Ramos. Cheney was offended by Aquino’s snub and was quite vocal about his disdain for Philippine politics.

Cheney’s eruption was backed by Mt. Pinatubo and helped the defense secretary hasten the US decision to pack their bags and leave town. What Cheney did not understand was that Aquino was already sold to the idea of renewing the bases agreement but it was the Philippine Senate who thumbed down the treaty. Cheney’s public outbursts did not help either especially with many senators feeling nationalistic and eager to defend the Philippine flag from America’s “imperialistic” treatment of the former commonwealth.

Thus, Rep. Cheney is probably telling dad how she stuck that knife a little deeper by preventing any language from being inserted into the appropriations bill that would authorize the return of the bells.

The Cheney angle is one part of the story of why these bells will not be returned in the near future or the next life. The other more compelling reason is history. The story of the Balangiga Bells is told differently by the Americans who see the bells as a memorial for the Americans “massacred” in Balangiga, Samar in 1901. Filipinos on the other hand, see the return as recognition of their fight for independence and to finally honor those who fought in Balangiga.

These are two distinctly different perspectives that are miles apart. Returning the bells would change history and somehow diminish the sacrifices made by American soldiers who fought the insurgents (mind you, they’re not even called rebels!) and an admission of the Imperial aggression back then. The Balangiga base was a sovereign property of the United States (much like an embassy) and therefore, they were well within their bounds to defend it.

On the other hand, continually opposing their return reminds Filipinos of the genocidal campaign the American forces waged on the island of Samar after the surprise attack launched by famed Filipino General Vicente Lukban. The Bicolano general outsmarted the Americans by sending his troops dressed as participants in a funeral but was hiding their weapons inside the caskets.  Unarmed American soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment were having breakfast when they were suddenly fired upon killing most of them. The few who escaped came back with more reinforcements and transformed Samar into a “howling wilderness.”

Lukban’s heroism will always be hailed by Filipino historians and honored by the Filipinos for his great contributions to the country’s struggle for independence. His treachery will also be reviled by the American audience who caused the death of American soldiers in cold blood who were sent to the Philippine Islands to implement President William McKinley’s Benevolent Assimilation policy for the country.

“The spoils of war belong to the victor” is an old proverb coined by US Senator William Learned Marcy of New York in 1832. By defeating the Filipinos during the Philippine American War (Filipino version) or stopping the Philippine Insurrection (American version), American forces occupied the Philippines for decades and undeniably left its footprint indelible for centuries to come. They also have the bells to show for it.

The true story of the Balangiga will always be disputed depending on who is telling it. It has been over a century since this event in history has taken place, and yet, passions remain high on both sides that their version is the truth. The truth is there will always be two versions to this story because that is how history is written. Unlike in movies where a happy ending is sometimes written in for dramatic effect, there is no foreseeable true happy ending to this story. One side will always be left out whatever the outcome would be.

If there was a time when the bells could have been returned was during Bill Clinton’s presidency. His willingness to return the bells in 1994 during President Fidel Ramos’ time was perfect given the Philippines’ upcoming Centennial celebration in 4 years. But maybe the bells are bad luck because Clinton’s impeachment proceedings distracted him and consequently eroded whatever goodwill he had in Congress. In 2005, another attempt by US military veterans to return the bells was almost successful only to be blocked by the governor at the last minute.

The question is should we all wait for another hundred years (and many presidents) to decide for whom the church bells of Balangiga tolls? Or should these two countries start working on a joint friendship project starting with the empty belfry that withstood the fury of Typhoon Yolanda, to honor the dead, if that is one of the goals and help Balangiga rise above the ashes of the war and the devastation of Yolanda? Seeing a progressive and prosperous Balangiga is a great way to honor their memories. And by having such a living memorial, will allow people from both sides to have “closure.”



 

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