Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Brewing Battle to Bring Back the Bells of Bayan Balangiga

In the pursuit of its “Manifest Destiny”, America decided to conduct a foreign policy of Expansionism. As the 19th Century was ending, the United States targeted the Philippines as a strategic place for its Asian ambitions. The Spanish-American War began in 1898 and the American expansionists or imperialists were maneuvering to become the “new colonial masters in the Philippines.”

Earlier in 1896, the Philippine Revolution broke out against Spain, which was its colonizer for more than 300 years. Forever fighting against foreign oppressors and continuously conducting guerrilla warfare against the Spanish rulers, the Filipino revolutionaries caused the collapse of Spanish power in the entire country. In fact, on June 12, 1898 Philippine Independence was proclaimed and a new Philippine Government led by General Emilio Aguinaldo was installed.

But America had other plans. It conducted secret negotiations with Spain. A mock battle on August 13, 1898 was staged to justify the turning over by Spain of the Philippines to America. For $20 million, the Philippines was “purchased” from Spain.

The Filipinos resisted American rule. Thus – the Philippine-American War began. Sending over a hundred thousand troops, killing hundreds of thousands including women and children, burning villages, and torturing prisoners, America finally won the war in 1902.

Described by Pulitzer Prize Winning historian Walter McDougall as having the Good, the Bad and the Ugly parts of America’s history, I would call the Filipino-American War as both Bad and Ugly.

An example was the event that transpired in a small town called Balangiga in the province of Samar, Philippines. The town folks were determined to resist American occupation. After initially decimating  Company C of the 9th Infantry Battalion that was sent to their town, the townspeople were eventually conquered. As historians described, “in an 11-day span burned 255 dwellings, slaughtered 13 carabaos (Filipino oxen), and killed 39 people” in retaliation for what the townspeople did to Company C.

In addition to the burning of the entire island of Samar on orders by Brigadier General Jacob W. Smith there was an order to kill  all boys aged 11 and over.  About 43,000 people either died or fled. This was considered “genocidal retribution”.

Adding insult to  injury, the American soldiers also decided to take with them the Balangiga Bells. 

The soldiers who took them must have considered them war trophies.  For long periods of time, warfare left the victor the complete discretion as to the distribution of spoils.

But the church bells are religious artifacts that fall within the definition of “cultural property” recognized by existing international conventions, treaties and agreements signed and accepted by both the United States and the Philippines.

Conventions on the return and recovery of stolen cultural property now exist to support claimants.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario recently announced that DFA would soon “aggressively pursue diplomatic efforts for the return of the Balangiga Bells that were carted away by American troops during their occupation of the Eastern Visayas province more than 110 years ago.”

This is “To honor the people of Samar who fought valiantly for freedom during the Philippine-American War”, DFA said.

Upon reviewing my notes in my International Criminal Law class on “Offenses Against Cultural Property”, I discovered that   there is a legal and moral basis for the people of Balangiga to get back their church bells.

The United States and the Philippines signed the “Protocol and Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, The Hague, 14 May 1954” as well as the “Final Act of the Intergovernmental Conference on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, The Hague, 14 May 1954.”

The United States is also a signatory to bilateral agreements such as that with Mexico and other regional and international conventions and treaties.

As a matter of principle and policy therefore, the U.S. supports the return of any cultural property carted away during armed conflicts to its rightful owners. This is a Good part of what author/historian McDougall called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” parts of American Foreign Policy.

The Balangiga Bells are currently under the custody and care of the U.S. Government. Two are in a federal facility in Wyoming and one in a U.S. Military base in South Korea.

On the Philippine side, the Municipality of Balangiga had petitioned for the bells’ return. Then Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel sponsored a Senate Resolution also asking for the return. Most importantly, then President Fidel Ramos had written a similar request to then President Bill Clinton.

On the U.S. side, Congressman Bob Filner of San Diego led a group of U.S. legislators supporting the return.  Even a Wyoming Commission that conducted a study specifically on the matter even recommended the return. Jean Wall, the daughter of the first American killed during the historic encounter also suggested the return. Even the Governor of Wyoming washed his hands and claimed that it is a Federal decision.

In announcing an aggressive diplomatic pursuit, DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario virtually rang the bell signaling that a Battle to Bring Back the Bells to Bayan Balangiga is Brewing.  (B to BB the B to BB is B.)

Beware Bilateral negotiators. Hope for the Good American and not the Ugly one to surface!

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