Tapatan sa Aristocrat: “Will we ever get the Balangiga bells back?” (video)

I fumbled, stuttered, and groped for words in my first ever press conference, and my wife was less happy about my posture on camera. But I had a ready excuse: I’m more of a writer than a talker, haha. Besides, sharing a table with known political personalities to discuss a historical-turned-national issue is no easy feat for a recluse like me. It was intimidating. In fact, when my wife, myself, and our baby girl arrived at the venue (The Aristocrat Restaurant, Malate) on the eve of History Month, I felt like Peter Parker who visited Germany for the first time in the opening scenes of “Spider-Man: Homecoming“: I was awestruck but tried my best to conceal it.

Actually, when I received an FB message from Rommel López (netizens know him as the guy who made famous last year a kind-hearted taxi driver) inviting me to appear on the said program as one of the resource persons, I was then busy with my EverWing commitments, so I half-mindedly said yes. Had he caught me in a different circumstance, I would have given the invite second thoughts, haha. 😂

I may have appeared on TV in the past, but Tapatan sa The Aristocrat is different: it’s the only weekly press conference to regularly feature our country’s top movers, from former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile to Vice President Leni Robredo.

For the July 31st episode, the guests were former Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yásay, Jr., Atty. Rómulo Macalintal (Robredo’s lawyer), and myself — just a regular guy who happens to write about Filipino History online.

The topic for that week was brought about by President Rodrigo Duterte’s emphatic statement against the United States government during this year’s SONA to have the Balangiga bells returned to our country.

That is why I say today: give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isaúli namán ninyó. Masaquít ’yun sa amin.

—President Rodrigo Duterte—

It should be remembered that after turning Sámar into a “howling wilderness” in 1901, the US invaders took with them the bells of Balangiga as war trophies. Two of the bells are now on display at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming while the other one is in the possession of the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. There have been several attempts in the past to have the bells returned to our country, but to no avail. President Duterte mentioning those bells in his SONA marks the first time that a national leader explicitly asked for their return.

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Discussing the possibilities of the Balangiga Bells being returned to our country. From left to right: Host Melo Acuna, Atty. Rómulo Macalintal, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yásay, Jr., myself, and co-host Sky Ortigas (photo: Yeyette Alas).

It is regrettable that I do not talk the way I write. Since I’m such a wuss when it comes to oral discussions, I may have not clearly expressed my sentiments during the press conference. So here they are…

Talk is cheap. If President Duterte really wants the bells of Balangiga to be returned, then he should make a formal written request to the parties concerned, and he should assiduously and perseveringly follow this up and never give up on it until they have come back to where they truly belong: in the belfry of the Church of San Lorenzo Mártir in Balangiga, Sámar. In simple words, the president should act on it. But weeks after his strong statements about the matter, has anything positive come to light?

Secondly, in case the bells of Balangiga have been returned, how will they be conserved? I should share now that my family has visited several heritage churches and have even climbed their belfries. We have seen for ourselves the poor state of their bells. While it can be argued that church bells are the responsibility of parish churches, it should be noted that they are no mere church items. As the president himself has said, they are part of our national heritage. They should be given due importance. But how could our government even talk about giving them importance when the place where those bells were cast (Casa Súnico in San Nicolás, Manila) could not even be conserved and protected?

More importantly, the issue of diplomacy should not be ignored. It is well-known how anti-US our president is. This problem, of course, will come to play especially now that he has reoponed old wounds. But what had happened in Balangiga was a tragedy, a tragedy not only for the natives there but also to the US troops who were massacred. Not all of them were bad guys. Captain Thomas W. Connell, leader of Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, was even a staunch Catholic who attended Mass at the San Lorenzo Mártir Church every day. He also imposed several restrictions on his troops that would prevent abuses against the natives (Connell was one of those who had the misfortune of being killed by Filipinos on 28 September 1901). What I’m trying to say here is that we should not treat history as merely black and white. All the players in this tragedy were humans, each had their own stories to tell. That is why it is difficult not to empathize with some US veterans and descendants of Company C who are still reluctant in returning the bells to us. To them, the troops sent to Balangiga were benign and tolerant, and that it was the natives who made the first move at violence. But then again, those troops had no business being there. Other than that, US policy is still strongly felt in our shores, even with President Duterte around. That is why it is impossible to say that what had happened in Balangiga is history. How can we say that it was all in the past when the aggressor is still within our midst? That is why diplomacy is needed (even if “artificial”), something our president is not that good at, especially towards the United States.

Lastly, as I have said earlier, there have been attempts in the past to have those bells returned. Former presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo both worked quietly to have them taken back, but nothing happened. So if those bells are not returned within Duterte’s presidency, the only president to have strongly asked for their return, I doubt that they ever will be.

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