117 years on, US set to return war-trophy bells to Philippines

Manila, Philippines: The whole country was watching as President Rodrigo Duterte decided last year to put Sung Kim, the ambassador of the United States to the Philippines, on the spot.

“At this point, allow me to take a step back in time, in 1901,” Duterte said, as his televised state of the nation address in July 2017 took a surprise turn towards the US colonisation of the Philippines.

“In 1901, there was known as Balangiga,” the Philippine president continued – and the audience knew right away where he was heading.

If there is one thing Filipinos know the rural town of Balangiga for, that is the so-called “massacre” that also involved three church bells ending up in the US’s possession.

“Give us back those Balangiga bells,” Duterte bellowed from the rostrum. “They are ours.”

The camera zoomed in on Kim, who was listening from the gallery of Congress’ plenary hall. The US ambassador kept a straight face as the hall burst in applause.

On Tuesday, almost 17 months since that public address and 117 years since US troops took the bells from the belfry of a burning town, the Balangiga bells will arrive back in the Philippines.

In a clandestine attack on September 28, 1901, about 500 Filipinos armed with machetes swooped down on US soldiers having breakfast at their garrison in Balangiga. The unsuspecting soldiers had left their rifles at the barracks.

The townspeople were angry at the colonisers for arresting their men and forcing them to work at camps.

In August, the US announced it was returning the bells [Courtesy of the US Embassy in Manila]

The “massacre” of the US soldiers began with the tolling of the town’s church bells. Forty-eight of the 78 US soldiers were killed, while those who survived scurried to the coast and boarded boats to safety.

The following day, fresh US troops returned to Balangiga with orders to raze the town. General Jacob Smith told his soldiers it would please him if they killed and burned and took no prisoners, urging them to leave the place a “howling wilderness”.

The scorched-earth campaign eventually spread to the entire province of Samar, with local men being killed and women and children being starved. Historians have put the Filipino death toll between hundreds to tens of thousands.

Adding to the “massacre” of the Filipinos, the US soldiers looted the church in Balangiga and carried off its bells as war trophies. Two of the bells wound up in a monument at an air force base in the US state of Wyoming; the third, a smaller one, at a US military facility in South Korea.

After gaining independence from the US in 1946, the Philippines made constant efforts at getting the bells back from the US government, to no avail.

Duterte is the first Philippine president with outspokenly anti-US sentiments. He has brought up colonial-era atrocities during public speeches on several occasions.

He has also made a policy of distancing the Philippines from the US as he “pivots” to China for economic and security cooperation.

Many Filipino leaders, past and present, have criticised the US for failing to deliver on expectations as a treaty ally since 1951, especially in the face of China’s occupation of several reefs within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

But recently, the US has ramped up military, economic and humanitarian aid to the Philippines by several million dollars. And in August, the US government announced it would return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.

The bells will arrive on Tuesday in the capital, Manila, where they will be officially received by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at a military base. On Saturday, Duterte will lead their reinstallation in Balangiga in a ceremony that is expected to reaffirm the two countries’ ties.

“It means a chapter that was a source of irritation has closed,” Jose Antonio Custodio, military historian, told Al Jazeera.

“The Philippines and the US can both move forward despite Duterte’s incoherent theatrics against the Americans.”