Duterte Welcomes US Move to Return War Booty Church Bells to Philippines

Richel V. Umel and Mark Navales
Iligan and Cotabato, Philippines
180813_PH_church-bells_1000.JPG Secretary of Defense James Mattis (right) introduces Vice President Mike Pence during an event at the Pentagon, Aug. 9, 2018. Mattis has notified the U.S. Congress that the Department of Defense intends to return the church bells of Balangiga to the Philippines, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. [AP]
Photo: Benar

The United States has agreed in principle to return bells it has taken as war booty from the Balangiga church in the central Philippines more than a century ago, potentially ending a bitter chapter in bilateral relations, officials said.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has informed the American Congress that his department intends to return the Bells of Balangiga at a still unspecified date to its Southeast Asian ally, the American embassy said on Saturday.

This comes following the signing of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act in 2018, giving the defense secretary the chief authority to return the bells. Mattis reportedly signed the documents favoring the return of the bells last week.

“We've received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve,” said Trude Raizen, the embassy’s deputy press attaché.

"We are aware that the bells of Balangiga have deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines,” she said.

The news was welcomed by historians and the people of Balangiga, who have been actively pursuing the bells’ return for years.

Manila has been informed of the development, calling it a “welcome development” that would serve to improve bilateral relations, which has been strained by President Rodrigo Duterte’s frequent verbal attacks against the US.

“We welcome this development as we look forward to continue working with the United States government in paving the way for the return of the bells to the Philippines,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Sunday.

When Duterte became president two years ago, he had signaled a diplomatic policy shift as he forged closer ties with Washington’s traditional rivals China and Russia.

He had also cursed former U.S. President Barrack Obama and warned that he would kick out all American troops serving as consultants in Philippine bases.

But his stand softened when Donald Trump succeeded Obama, and local officials said the bells were among the topics briefly discussed when the two leaders met last year on the sidelines of a regional conference in Manila.

American forces had also provided intelligence support – a much-needed military boost that Duterte had appreciated – that helped Filipino forces defeat Islamic State extremists who had taken over the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

Prior to that, Duterte had frequently used examples of past U.S. cruelty, including the massacre of Filipino Muslims in the south during Washington’s pacification campaign more than 100 years ago.

He had also reminded America that U.S. troops in 1901 were sent to the town of Balangiga to avenge the death of some 48 men killed in an attack on a U.S. garrison by Filipino soldiers.

“In retaliation, U.S. gunboats and patrols were sent to Balangiga, Samar, with the order to make a desert of Balangiga and to reduce Samar into an island of howling wilderness, where every male citizen from the age of 10 and above, and capable of bearing arms, would be put to death,” Duterte said last year during an address to Congress in July.

“The church bells of Balangiga were seized by the Americans as spoils of war,” he said.

But those bells should serve to remind Filipinos that their forebears resisted the American colonizers, he said.

“Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said. “You should return them.”

‘Major breakthrough and victory’

Local historian Rolando Borrinaga, who has been working with descendants of those who survived the fighting, said he considered it a “major breakthrough and victory.”

But he said the concurrence of the U.S. Congress would need about three months, where new lobbying was needed.

“But I think the lobbying this time won’t be as bloody as the one for the inclusion of the provision of the Balangiga bells in the NDDA 2018 that was enacted into law in December,” he said.

While Duterte’s actions may, at first glance, seem to have spurred the development, others pushing for the return of the bells may have actually complicated things.

Negotiations have been going on for the return of the bells prior to Duterte becoming the president, and his rants against the U.S. probably delayed the return of the bells.

“The supportive veterans, however, chose to ignore the political sideshow and pushed on, leading us to where we are now,” one source said.

The nationalist umbrella group Bells of Freedom lauded it as a positive step toward correcting what it called centuries of "historical injustices" perpetrated by U.S. forces.

"The United States should complete the correction of historical injustice committed against the Filipino people after the return of the bells by ensuring that all other war booties be properly returned to the Philippines," the group said in a statement.

Washington must also acknowledge its past war actions by "way of formally apologizing to the Filipino people,” it said. "Never again should another series of colonial wars of aggression be experienced in the country.”

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.


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