PH demands return of Balangiga bells seized by U.S.

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 25) — President Rodrigo Duterte resurrects a decades-old fight for the return of the historic Balangiga bells seized by the U.S. from a church in Samar during the Philippine-American war.

"Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage," Duterte said amid applause from the audience at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City where he delivered his second State of the Nation Address on Monday.

"Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit 'yun sa amin (Please give them back. It's painful for us)," Duterte added.

U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim appeared uncomfortable in his seat. 

In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. Embassy Spokesperson Molly Koscina said the U.S. will "continue to work with our Filipino partners to find a resolution."

She said the bells "have deep significance" for both countries.

After Duterte's two-hour speech on Monday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told CNN Philippines the government is working on bringing the bells home. 

"There's many, many ways. There's the talks, there's a court procedure, there are a lot of ways and we've been trying to get it back," Cayetano said.

'Symbol of heroism'

On September 28, 1901 Filipinos launched a surprise attack against American troops stationed in Balangiga town in Samar province, killing 48. One of the bells from the parish church was reportedly used to signal the attack.

The American soldiers retaliated, destroying the town and killing thousands of Filipino soldiers and locals. They claimed all three bells from the Balangiga Church, and a 1557 cannon as war booty.

Duterte on Monday said, "Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process."

More than 115 years after they were seized, the Balangiga bells remain with the U.S. Two are displayed at the Trophy Park at an air base in Wyoming, west of the U.S. The third bell, which historians believe signaled the attack, is at a U.S. military museum in South Korea. 

A descendant of Captain Valeriano Abanador, one of the leaders who led Filipinos' during the Balangiga encounter, remains hopeful. 

"In fact I composed a hymn in local language, where in the finale it's expressing fervent hope that the day will come when those bells will finally ring with resounding joy in our belfry which we the people of Balangiga are looking forward for that day," said Yolly Amano, Abanador's grandniece.

"I don't agree with U.S. claiming the bells 'booty'. They were stolen by the 2nd Company that time the guerillas had fled to the mountains," she added.

Karina Tiopes, regional director for the Tourism Department in Eastern Visayas, said the Balangiga bells "are not just ordinary relics of our past. These bells are a symbol of the bravery of our ancestors. It serves as a reminder to all Filipinos of how we can unite as one and fight oppression and aggressors."

Former President Fidel Ramos rallied but failed to get the bells back in the 1990s, even after personally raising his concern with then U.S. President Bill Clinton who was in Manila en route to Indonesia in 1994.  

Other government officials, lawmakers, and the Catholic Church have made the same appeal to the U.S. government. In 2014, 3,000 netizens signed an online petition asking U.S. President Barack Obama to return the historic artifacts.

Duterte also talked about the "Balangiga Massacre" before members of the Philippine Air Force on September 28, 2016. In October, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate filed a resolution for the House of Representatives to call on the U.S. government to return the artifacts. The measure is still pending before the committee on foreign affairs.

Tacloban City-based journalist Wil Mark Amazona contributed to this report.