Duterte tempers messaging vs US on day of Balangiga massacre commemoration

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 28 2017 09:52 PM | Updated as of Sep 29 2017 11:58 AM

Two Balangiga bells on display at the F. E. Warren Air Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy of Dennis Wright

MANILA – (UPDATED) President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday decided to temper his message towards the United States as the Philippines commemorated the clash between Filipinos and American soldiers in an Eastern Samar town more than a century ago. 

In a speech during the commemoration of the 116th Balangiga Encounter Day, Duterte said he has chosen to tone down his rhetoric against the US over the Balangiga bells as negotiations are ongoing for the return of the "war booty."

US soldiers had taken the town's 3 church bells after the Sept. 29, 1901 battle with Filipino revolutionaries. Despite Philippines' several attempts to get them back, the bells remain at an American Air Force base in Wyoming.

“These are all water under the bridge. I was under advice by the Department of Foreign Affairs that I would just temper my language and avoid mag-mura (cursing) which I am prone to do if I get emotional,” Duterte said in his speech.

The President had been angered by the lack of concrete commitment from the US to return the Balangiga bells.

In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), with US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim among the audience, Duterte asked the US to return the Balangiga bells.

Duterte’s appeal prompted the US, its long-standing defense ally, to recognize the significance of the bells for Filipinos.

In his speech Thursday, Duterte said the US somehow redeemed itself when it helped liberate the Philippines from the Japanese decades later.

“Whether we like it or not, we were engaged here, challenged by the Japanese occupation and it was America who partly helped us, as an ally. I would not say they were our saviors, but they are our allies and they helped us,” said Duterte, who had delivered stinging rhetoric against the Americans in his earlier speeches.The President also recognized the help that the US continues to provide the Philippines in its fight against terrorism.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Wednesday met with US State Secretary Rex Tillerson and key congressional leaders on Capitol Hill.

The “rollercoaster” is over, the top diplomat said, echoing Tillerson’s observation that Philippine-US relations are in an “upward vector.”

On Monday, Cayetano also met and thanked Sen. John McCain for being "a good friend and champion of the Philippines."

According to the DFA, McCain's grandfather served in the Philippines during the American occupation and World War II, while his father, also a Navy admiral who served in the Philippines, was a recipient of the Philippine Legion of Honor.

McCain also spent time in Subic and was processed at Clark Air Base upon his release from Vietnam as a prisoner of war, according to a DFA statement. 

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella welcomed House Resolution No. 1337, which expressed support for the President’s appeal for the US to return the Balangiga bells.

“Today, September 28, the nation remembers the 116th anniversary of the heroism and gallantry of our forebears in the municipality of Balangiga in Eastern Samar. And we also reiterate our call for the rightful return of the bells to the country,” he said.

“The Balangiga bells are integral to our national heritage and the return of these historical relics is crucial to our collective memory and sense of nationhood.”