In a diplomatic gesture of goodwill, the United States has finally returned the famed Balangiga Bells to the Philippines more than a century after taking them as war trophies.

The bells stand as one of the most powerful symbols of the Philippines’ “forgotten revolution” against America, which began a brutal occupation of the Southeast Asian country in the early 20th century after taking the islands from a waning imperial Spain.

The bells also represent a painful episode in Philippine-US relations, a deeply buried trauma that has been vengefully rekindled amid ongoing spats between the two allies over human rights and democracy concerns under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

With the bells’ return, the Donald Trump administration hopes to restore bilateral ties between the two long-time but recently estranged allies.

Senior Filipino officials told Asia Times that Duterte is now “seriously considering” to make his first ever official visit to the White House, likely in the first half of next year, as a reciprocal gesture of goodwill.

If so, it would mark a dramatic turn. During his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last year, the tough-talking Filipino leader demanded the bells’ return: “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” he said.

In a highly emotional speech, sprinkled with expletives and tirades against Western and US criticism of his scorched-earth drug war campaign, the Filipino leader stated in Tagalog, “Return them. It is painful for us.”

Philippines-US-Balangiga Bells-US Soldiers-1902-Wikimedia Commons
US troops with one of the seized Balangiga Bells in Calbayog, Samar, April 1902. Photo: Wikimedia

The Philippines has since the late 1950’s pressed for the return of the three large bells taken by occupying American forces from the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga, East Samar, in the central Philippines. The US had been reluctant because of the charged history behind their seizure.

After a surprise attack in September 1901 by Filipino revolutionaries who killed 48 US soldiers and wounded 20 others stationed in Balangiga, enraged Americans led by General Jacob Smith retaliated in an indiscriminate massacre of all Filipinos above the age of 10 in the area. The massacre reduced the whole island of East Samar into what one historian described as a “howling wilderness.”

Dubbed variously as “Hell Roaring Jake”, “The Monster”, and “Howling Jake”, the notorious general was later court martialled and dismissed from the armed service. But it was during this violent campaign of reprisal that US soldiers looted the bells from the torched Christian church in Balangiga.

Subsequently the 9th Infantry Regiment in Camp Red Cloud, situated in South Korea, kept one bell, while the other two were enshrined at the former base of the US’ 11th Infantry Regiment at F E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In this image obtained from the US Air Force, Philippine's Ambassador to the US, Jose Romualdez, and US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, pose on November 14, 2018, in front of the bells of Balangiga at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, in Wyoming. - During the visit, the Bells of Balangiga were officially returned to the Philippine government. US forces took three bells from the Catholic church of Balangiga town in 1901 as war booty in what historians said was a particularly brutal military operation in the former US colony. (Photo by Braydon Williams / US AIR FORCE / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / US Air Force / Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Philippine Ambassador Jose Romualdez (L) and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) in front of the Balangiga Bells at Francis E Warren Air Force Base, November 2018. Photo: US Air Force via AFP/Braydon Williams

The exact circumstances behind America’s conciliatory decision to return the bells are in question.

The removal of bureaucratic and legal hurdles in the National Defense Authorization Act, which had prevented the return of war memorial objects but expired last September, played a major role, according to the US State Department.

Others think Duterte’s anti-American tirades amid his government’s strong warming trend towards China may have also accelerated the process.

“People have worked for this for many, many years. It is time and we are very proud that it is happening. It has been 117 years. As time passes, wounds also heal,” US Embassy in Manila spokesperson Molly Koscina said on December 10 on the eve of the bells’ arrival in the Philippines.

Whatever the motivation and dynamics, the bells’ return represent a big domestic win for Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in video screen) salutes along with soldiers during the 121st founding anniversary of Philippine army at the army headquarters in Manila on March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in video screen) salutes along with soldiers during the 121st founding anniversary of Philippine army at the army headquarters in Manila, March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, expressed the Church’s, “profound gratitude to the Philippine government for its years of vigorous efforts to reclaim these bells,” and, “in particular our present government…for bringing a most successful and happy conclusion to all these efforts.”

Underscoring the bilateral importance of the gesture, the Davao City-based archbishop said the bells’ return, “gave a deeper sense of justice and respect between our peoples and consequently letting our friendship grow stronger.”

Top defense officials, namely US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who vigorously pushed for the bells’ return despite opposition at home, and Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who formerly served as a diplomat in the US for almost a decade, played critical roles.

The issue was central during their mid-September meeting in Washington, where the two defense chiefs discussed ways to strengthen their waning bilateral alliance amid shared strategic concerns in the region, including China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

“In returning the Bells of Balangiga to our ally and our friend – the Philippines – we pick up our generation’s responsibility to deepen the respect between our peoples,” Mattis said in a somber mid-November ceremony at F E Warren Air Force Base ahead of the bells’ shipment.

The ceremony was attended by Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez.

US President Donald Trump (L) talks with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during their bilateral meetin on the side line of the 31st Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. - World leaders are in the Philippines' capital for two days of summits. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

During the handover ceremony in the Philippines on December 11, Lorenzana underscored the shared importance of the event, declaring “It’s time for healing, it is time for closure, it is time to look ahead as two nations should with a shared history as allies.”

“The Bells of Balangiga will once again peal, it will still remind the people of Balangiga of what happened in the town square more than a century ago,” the Philippine defense chief said. “But we would also look at that history with more understanding and acceptance.”

For his part, Duterte decided to skip the symbolic ceremony. At the same time, the leader is reportedly reconsidering an earlier invitation to visit Trump’s White House, despite spending the first two years of his tenure lambasting America as “lousy”, “arrogant”, and meddlesome in Philippine internal affairs.

With the Balangiga Bells’ return bringing at least one chapter in the two sides’ dark history to a symbolic close, many in the Philippine defense establishment hope the mutual defense treaty allies will now ring in a new and reinvigorated future together.