DURING the Philippine revolution against Spain, the Katipunan had two mutually-hostile factions: the Magdiwang of Andres Bonifacio, and the Magdalo, which was identified with Emilio Aguinaldo. While they literally went at each other’s throat, the two groups continued to fight alongside each other, acknowledging that they were struggling for a common cause against a common enemy.
There may now be a similar situation, marked by distrust and hostility, but bound by common Philippine national interests.
The most prominent Filipino-American community leaders in the U.S. have been very vocal in their condemnation of the alleged extrajudicial killings that have characterized Duterte’s war on drugs. Some have even brought the issue before the U.S. Congress and the International Criminal Court.
In turn, Duterte and his supporters have accused the Fil-Ams of trying to destabilize his administration, ignoring the fact that most Filipinos approve of his governance.
It is doubtful that the two contending factions can arrive at a common ground on the issue of Duterte’s anti-drug war. But there are two causes that I believe both groups can – and should – agree to cooperate on, for the sake of the country.
The first is the recovery of the bells of Balangiga. The second has to do with the US Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II veterans.
Two bells, said to be war booty from Balangiga, Samar, are on display at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A third bell is said to be at a U.S. Army base in South Korea. Scholars do not completely agree on the number of authentic Balangiga bells. Some say that only one was taken from the church of Balangiga and that the other two may have been from other churches in Samar which were burned down by U.S. troops.
At any rate, American war veterans and members of the U.S. Congress who have opposed returning the bells to the Philippines insist that they are a painful memorial to the massacre of 48 troopers of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment by Filipino guerillas in a treacherous attack on the U.S. camp on September 28, 1901. The incident evokes visions of the route of Gen. Armstrong Custer and his men at Little Bighorn, during the Indian wars.
On the other hand, for Filipinos, the bells are a testament to the tactical skill of Samar fighters, armed mainly with bolos, who overwhelmed the superior American forces. They liken it to the surprise attack by Gen. George Washington on the Hessian allies of the British at Trenton, New Jersey during the American revolution.
But what is generally conceded is that the bells are symbols of the horrors of war, epitomized by the order given by Brig. Gen, Jacob Smith to make Samar “a howling wilderness,” as retaliation for the loss of American lives at Balangiga.
Declared Smith, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.”
In the course of his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte demanded, “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage… Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yan sa amin (Please return the bells. That was painful for us).”
U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim was in the audience, listening impassively to Duterte’s harangue. In a subsequent official statement, the U.S. Embassy acknowledged that the bells have a “deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines” and that the Embassy would ”continue to work with our Filipino partners to find a resolution.”
That reassurance, however, is just one more diplomatic effort to raise the hopes of the Philippines about recovering the bells. In fact, more influential intercessions have been made in the past but have failed.
During the incumbency of President Fidel V. Ramos and of Philippine Ambassador to Washington Raul Rabe, they appealed directly to President Bill Clinton and suggested a compromise: replicas of the two bells would be cast and both the U.S. and the Philippines would take possession of one original and one replica.
Recalls Ramos, in a media account, “President Clinton favored the sharing proposal, but was stymied by an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to ‘prohibit the return of veterans’ memorial objects to a foreign nation without specific authorization in law’ The rider was introduced a few weeks before by Senator Craig Thomas, a former congressman from Wyoming, who intoned, ‘History brought the bells to Wyoming, and there they should stay.”
Thomas is now dead and the provision he inserted in the Pentagon spending bill is reportedly expiring in September. Thomas’ former congressional seat is now occupied by Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. When Ramos was Secretary of National Defense under President Cory Aquino, he also made representations for the return of the bells through then Defense Secretary Cheney, but to no avail.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Frank Wisner is said to have recently written to Rep. Cheney about helping arrange the return of the bells. U.S. war veterans have also been supportive of the return, with one of them writing to Senator John McCain for his intercession.
Whether any of these can soften the intransigence of the Wyoming war vets is anybody’s guess, but the assistance and support of every single group should be considered.
The Fil-Am community would certainly be one such group, having successfully lobbied Capitol Hill in the long struggle for benefits for Filipino soldiers who fought under the U.S. flag in World War II. The same group also succeeded in securing passage of the bill authorizing the conferment of the Congressional Gold Medal on the old Filipino soldiers.
The effort to recover the bells may also be a good opportunity for the newly-designated Philippine Ambassador to Washington DC., Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, to broker a rapprochement between Duterte and the Fil-Am leaders for the sake of the country which both groups claim to love.
Perhaps, Romualdez, who has many friends in the Fil-Am community, can work with the leaders to lobby the U.S. Congress for the lifting of the prohibition inserted by Thomas.
Among the Fil-Am leaders is Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (U.S. Army, retired), the general who blew the lid off U.S. military atrocities in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Taguba is chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, which worked diligently for passage of the bill that would grant Filipino veterans the highest civilian honor conferred by the U.S. The bill was one of the last signed into law by President Barack Obama.
At the same time, Romualdez could be of great help to Taguba’s group. The original Congressional Gold Medal will be on permanent display at the Smithsonian, but the FVREP would like to give a replica of the medal to every deserving veteran.
That requires funds, which the group is currently raising. The support of the Philippine government is very important in this effort. And Romualdez, who also happens to be an old hand in the advertising and marketing business (I believe he owns an advertising agency), can help tap corporate sponsors in Manila for this worthy cause.
Duterte and some of the Fil-Am leaders may never get along on certain issues, but these two causes — the return of the bells and raising funds for the Congressional Gold Medal — should be reason enough to work with each other.
Para sa Inang Bayan.