Balangiga bells

President Rodrigo Duterte is absolutely right. The Balangiga bells, seized by United States Army soldiers from the Catholic church of Balangiga town, Samar in 1902, “are part of our national heritage,” and should be returned to the Philippines.

Mr. Duterte made the demand in the presence of the US Ambassador to the Philippines during his second and otherwise predictably self-serving, profanity-laced State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 24.

The bells’ remaining in US hands (two are in a US Army base in Cheyenne in the state of Wyoming while another is in the museum of a US military facility in South Korea), is a constant reminder of the brutality with which the US “pacified” the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, and of its continuing humiliation as a conquered country.

The bells were among other war booty looted from the Balangiga church by US troops in the course of the campaign directed by US Army General Jacob (alias “Howling Jake”) Smith to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to kill every male Filipino ten years of age and above whom Smith deemed capable of bearing arms.

The campaign was in retaliation for the September 28, 1901 death of 48 US troopers and the wounding of 22 more in Balangiga village by Filipino guerrillas during a raid on a US Army encampment. Some 25 villagers were also killed during the fighting, with the guerrillas capturing arms and ammunition from the invading troops.

Although Smith was later court-martialled for ordering the attack on civilians and to kill all males as young as ten, which would qualify today as a war crime, the bells have since remained in US hands.

There have been previous attempts through diplomatic means and Senate resolutions — among the latter one in 2002 authored by then Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., and another in 2011 introduced by his son, now Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III — to have the bells returned. But the US has so far turned a deaf ear to these initiatives.

The recovery of the Balangiga bells would redress a national insult and correct a historical wrong. It should also remind Filipinos of the sacrifices their forebears had to go through in the defense of the country and the Revolution, the armies of which, by the time of the US invasion in 1900, had already won the anti-colonial struggle against Spain. But Malacanang spokespersons exaggerate when they proclaim that it would “restore the dignity” of the nation.

The assumption in that statement that the nation has lost its dignity is of course sound enough. Filipinos have suffered one humiliation after another not only abroad but even in their own country itself, ranging from being insulted as denizens of a dirt-poor country whose nationals would rather live elsewhere than in the country of their birth, to the Philippines’ being treated as the doormat and lapdog of foreign powers.

In any airport in the developed countries, whether in the United States, Japan or Europe, a Philippine passport is regarded with as much disrespect as travel documents from a failed African state, and the possessor subjected to the scorn and discrimination of immigration personnel who assume that he or she intends to stay beyond the period stipulated in his or her visa.

The Philippines is also reputed to be an inexhaustible source of mail order brides, a major hub of human trafficking, a readily-available source of drug transporters (“mules”), and a haven for foreign child molesters and pedophiles. A debtor nation, an aid recipient, and its economy dependent on OFW remittances, it relies on the charity and help of other countries not only to supply the jobs it can’t provide its citizens but also to cope with the disasters that annually cost it dearly in lives and property lost. Even more contributory to the country’s being perceived as of little or no importance in the global scheme of things, the sovereignty it claims in words is often compromised in deeds by a political class that’s among the most corrupt and most irresponsible on Planet Earth.

All these have been going on for decades with no visible end in sight. The country’s transformation into the realm of peace, independence and prosperity that all of humanity aspires for has continued to elude the Filipino people despite the Revolution of 1896 and the 1986 EDSA mutiny that overthrew the Marcos terror regime.

It will take much much more than the recovery of the Balangiga church bells to restore the Filipino sense of self-worth as well as the respect of the rest of the world. But unbeknownst to its most rabid partisans, what has lately contributed further to the country’s tainted reputation and its citizens’ inability to face the rest of the world with dignity is the Duterte regime’s barbaric “war” on drugs, which internationally has become the symbol of the lawlessness, unaccountable violence, and the consequent terror with which the poorest and most powerless Filipinos have to contend.

Together with Mr. Duterte’s declarations that he doesn’t care for human rights, his statements promising police and military personnel immunity from prosecution in the course of the drug war and the implementation of martial law in Mindanao, and his recent threat to bomb Lumad schools, the pending restoration of the death penalty has also eroded perceptions that despite its poverty and other ills, the Philippines has nevertheless been adopting enlightened policies, among them official commitment to the universally-mandated respect for human rights and the world-wide elimination of the death penalty.

While these and other international commitments do suffer from deficiencies in implementation, they at least suggest that, thanks to the efforts of human rights defenders, people’s organizations and civil society, a backward and unenlightened political class has been compelled, if only in words and on paper, to observe civilized norms.

That perception is fading as the international media, realizing that a story of global interest is developing in the Philippines, have increasingly focused on the terrors for the poor and powerless of living under the Duterte regime. Dying in a hail of police bullets while begging for one’s life is a fate unworthy of human beings. But thousands have been thus deprived of life and the dignity to which everyone is entitled.

There is no dignity in being victimized, whether by one’s own government or by other countries. The much-touted Duterte policy of standing up to the United States has given way to collaboration with it, as the US seized the opportunity provided by the Marawi crisis to supply one of its local and most loyal dependents, the Philippine military, with more advanced weapons. These weapons can of course also be used against the people, among them the Lumad and the Bangsamoro, and of course the NPA, as well as protesters and dissenters and anyone else the regime may want to claim to be in rebellion, which would be a most convenient excuse for placing the entire country under martial law. Meanwhile, as the US consolidates its hold on the regime, Mr. Duterte’s ardent courtship of China and Russia is in the minds of many leading to the Philippines’ bowing to three masters instead of one.

The bells of Balangiga should indeed be returned, if only so they can once more toll on Philippine soil to warn this country and its people how, indeed, things are changing — but for the worse rather than for the better.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from WikiMedia Commons.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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