February 24, 2010

For Whom Should the Balangiga Bells Toll?



I wrote the following article a long time ago... and as opportunity presented itself, I found myself in Balangiga for real. A place once known as a howling wilderness...

The Philippines has waited for more than a century for the U.S. to free its last prisoners from the 1899-1901 Philippine-American War - the Bells of Balangiga. The contested bells, reportedly used to signal a surprise attack by hundreds of local Filipino guerrillas on U.S. war veterans of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment on September 28, 1901, were taken as war booties by American soldiers from the church of Balangiga in Eastern Samar. The two bells are presently enshrined at the Trophy Park of the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while the third bell is in the possession of an U.S. Army unit in Korea.

The bloody conflict popularly known as the "Balangiga Massacre" rooted from the protest of attackers for the forced labor, starvation, detention, and humiliation they suffered from the hands of foreign authority. Described by the U.S. military as its "worst single defeat" in the Philippines, they were initially driven off with 48 casualties. But they were able to retaliate with vengeance turning Samar into a "howling wilderness," causing the deaths of ten of thousands of Filipino civilians.

Since 1950s, the Philippine government, religious organizations and several groups and individuals have been working assiduously to gain U.S. support for the return of the bells. They say church bells are religious artifacts and therefore are inappropriate trophies of war. British scholar Bob Couttie maintained that even though the bells were used to signal the attack on American soldiers, the Parish of Balangiga generally did not order or approve the use of the bells in the attack. Significantly, experts around the world which the Balangiga Research Group had consulted conclude that based on custom and military laws, and international treaties, the bells rightfully belong to Balangiga. In 1994, then U.S. President Bill Clinton offered to return the bells "in the spirit of fair play." However, his offer was considered "illegal" in some State Department circles. In 1998, in hope for the return of the bells for the centennial commemoration of the Philippine Independence, then President Fidel V. Ramos proposed a "one original, one replica" sharing of the bells for both countries.

The Philippine government was close in getting back the bells if only not for the strong opposition from members of the local American Legion and Wyoming legislators who had blocked all attempts to return the bells, which they consider to be legitimate spoils of war. They believe that the return of the bells would desecrate their memorial to U.S. soldiers who died in Balangiga. Despite the objections, the clamor for the return of the bells intensified. In 2005, Wyoming Veterans Commission (WVC), which previously opposed giving up the bells, voted and passed a resolution in favor of returning them to the Philippines. In the U.S. Congress, three House Resolutions were introduced in 1997, 2003, and 2006 respectively, authorizing the U.S. President for the transfer of ownership of one of the bells.  The proposal provides a means for both countries to mutually share in the heritage that the bells of Balangiga represent.

According to Filipino scholar Rolando O. Borrinaga, the failure for the recovery of the bells could be attributed to the contradictory views of Filipinos and Americans to what the Balangiga Conflict stands for. The Americans view it as a "dastardly, cowardly act carried out against naive and kindly Americans" doing pacification work. The Filipinos, on the other hand, regard it as a "courageous uprising against a cruel, foreign oppressor."

In 1998, the Balangiga Belfry worth P5 million, was erected to house the bells. Its temporary wooden marker hopes to "Let freedom ring once more from these bells, from the Belfry of Balangiga where they originally belong, to punctuate America's generosity of spirit, and the gallantry of our forebears, and complete the healing." In the spirit of more than a hundred years of friendship between the two countries and for all the struggles of Filipino soldiers who fought shoulder to shoulder with American troops in the battlefields during World War II, in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the return of the bells should express a final closure to a painful historical episode of war. The U.S. had previously returned war booties rightfully belonging to other countries, including the bells they have taken from Nagasaki, Japan, can't they return even one of the three Balangiga Bells, which symbolize the priceless collective sentiments, not only of the people of Balangiga, but of the whole Philippine nation.
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