MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday admitted striking a deal in bad faith with the United States for the return of the historic Balangiga Bells in exchange for a supposed visit to Washington during the presidency of Donald Trump.
“The deal was, I would say, I am in bad faith. Sigurado ‘yan, I will admit it. But this is the real story,” Duterte said in his last State of the Nation Address.
The Philippine leader recounted that during a meeting with American war veterans, the date of which he did not disclose, he was asked if he would heed the invitation of then President Donald Trump to visit the US.
He said he initially responded in the negative, saying “I don’t like the way that you are treating my country.”
As the clamor for the return of the Balangiga Bells was already building up at the time, Duterte said he brought the matter up before the US side.
“‘Isauli namin, pupunta ka?’… Sabi ko sa America, ‘Yes, I might consider going to America’… Work on it,” Duterte narrated their supposed conversation.
(If we return it, would you visit the US?… I told the Americans, ‘Yes, I might consider going to America.’.)
“In two months' time, they told me the ship carrying the bells are on the way... “ he added.
After the bells arrived in the Philippines in December 2018, or 117 years since they were removed from Balangiga town in Eastern Samar as war booty by American soldiers, Duterte said he was asked when he was going to the US.
“I lost time to do it. I cannot do it now,” he said was his reply. Trump stepped down early this year after losing his reelection bid to Joe Biden.
“Pero, talaga, in my mind, the Americans might know it, there was never in my mind a trip to America… If I go to America, it will be on my own time. Pero actually, wala ako, I have not been to American for almost 10 years, 20, 22 years. I have not visited America and I don’t have nay intention of visiting it anymore,” Duterte said.
From being Manila’s perceived best friend because of shared history dating back to the colonial years over a century ago, Washington was suddenly pushed aside when Duterte took over in 2016. The US and its officials have been at the receiving end of Duterte’s foul language starting when he was accused of disregarding human rights in his flagship war on drugs.
These, even as Duterte and Trump had mutual admiration for each other.
Early on in his presidency, Duterte threatened to pull out US forces from the Mindanao, declared a "separation" from the U.S., and favored joining a "new order" with Russia and China. Last year, the Philippine leader notified the US about its abrogation of the two countries’ Visiting Force Agreement, although this had been suspended thrice since then.
Duterte’s "independent foreign policy" was described by his spokespersons as being "friends to all and enemies to none," which, later became, "friends to our friends; enemies to our enemies."
The policy was declared as Duterte turned to China for more economic incentives while downplaying the South China Sea disputes, and to Russia for improved security and economic ties.
THE BALANGIGA BELLS
The Balangiga Bells tolled in the morning of September 28, 1901 to signal the start of a sneak attack by dozens of town villagers against American soldiers.
Some 50 Americans, many of them eating breakfast or just waking up, were killed in the incident that handed Filipinos one of their greatest victories in the Filipino-American war.
But the American forces retaliated under the orders of US General Jacob Smith, killing and burning all men above the age of 10 in the town, leaving some 2,000 locals dead.
The US troops took three church bells as war trophy, displaying two of them in a museum in Fort Russell, Wyoming, and another at a museum in South Korea.
Efforts to retrieve the bells were made as early as 1957, when Fr. Horacio de la Costa requested their return to Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California.
A petition by the Balangiga Historical Society for the bells' return in 1989 failed despite help from the National Historical Institute and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In 1994, then-US President Bill Clinton gave a verbal promise to return the bells to then President Fidel V. Ramos, "in the spirit of fair play." But some US officials opposed Clinton's offer.
Efforts would continue to make the US return the bells, with some private groups like the US-Philippines Society helping, when Duterte assumed office.
In 2017, Duterte demanded that the US return the bells, which he said were "reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers."
America finally agreed to return the bells in August 2018 when then US Defense Secretary James Mattis signed an official document agreeing to deliver back the wartime artifacts.