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Why the Balangiga Bells matter

By: Senator Manny Villar

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte ignited a controversial but very important historical debate during his second State of the Nation Address last July 24 before the joint session of Congress.

President Duterte talked about the issues close to his heart: the war on drugs and criminality, his disdain for corruption, and his promise to destroy those who would destroy our children.

But in the middle of the extemporaneous portion of his speech, he discussed the Balangiga Massacre of 1901 and demanded from the United States the return of the bells of Balangiga which their troops appropriated as spoils of war.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear the President talk about this historical injustice during a speech normally reserved for policy declarations. You have to hand it to the President for raising an issue many Filipinos are probably not even aware of.

I welcome and support the call of the President for the United States to return the Balangiga Bells. This is not the first effort to reclaim this historical artifact.

In fact in 2007, I filed Senate Resolution No. 177, “Expressing the Sense of the Senate for the Return to the Philippines of the Balangiga Bells which were taken by the US Troops from Balangiga, Province of Samar in 1991.”

I filed the resolution because of the deep historical and religious significance of the bells. In the prefatory statement of that resolution, I wrote that the church bells were a part of the lives of the Filipinos because despite their poverty, the people and the church raised enough money to have the bells cast, after which it served as “a call for the people to go to church to pray and worship God”.

I cited historical accounts in the resolution which I reproduce here so Filipinos who may not be aware of this historical event can fully appreciate why these bells are so important:

“WHEREAS…the ringing of the bells of Balangiga in the early morning of 28 September 1901 took on a different import as it served to signal the people of Balangiga to fight for their freedom, thus the surprise attack against American soldiers by the Waray revolutionaries.

WHEREAS, on the day of the attack, Waray men dressed as pious women carrying little coffins, purportedly of children who died of cholera, and armed with bolos, staged an attack against American soldiers belonging to the Charlie Company of the 9th US Infantry Regiment.”

According to an article written by John Eperjesi for Huffington Post, the attack which “killed some 48 out of 78 soldiers while severely injuring 22”, was the “worst defeat experienced by the US Army since the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876”.

It is important to remind us that the attacks orchestrated by the Filipinos was simply a reaction to the oppressive treatment they got from the American colonizers. Various historical accounts tell us that the US soldiers, in order to flush out the rebels, cut off the food supplies to the town, and they also assaulted young women. The attack of the people was therefore an act to protect their dignity and freedom.

The US response was so brutal it became known as the Balangiga Massacre. US Captain Jacob Smith, perhaps humiliated by the losses his troops suffered, ordered his men to raze the town to the ground. He ordered his men to kill everyone above the age of ten. Turn the town into a “howling wilderness”, he ordered. He was later court-martialed but was never punished for his crimes.

After the massacre, US troops took the three Balangiga Bells as “spoils of war” and brought them to the US.

According to Eperjesi, the “two bells are currently displayed at “Trophy Park” inside F.E. Warren Air Base near Cheyenne, Wyo. The third bell, supposedly the one that signaled the attack, went with the 9th Infantry Division, and is now located in a military museum at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea”.

For the Philippines, the bells of Balangiga signify the bravery of our people against an oppressive power. The bells symbolized an act of defiance, courage, and heroism.

That is why the Balangiga Bells need to be returned to its rightful owners: the people of Balangiga, Samar; the Diocese of Borongan – of which Balangiga is a parish; and the Filipino nation.

(For comments/feedback email to:mbv.secretariat@gmail or visit www.mannyvillar.com.ph.)