Duterte slams two U.S. solons' refusal to return Balangiga bells

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 13) — President Rodrigo Duterte said he would have let U.S. keep the historic Balangiga bells if only its soldiers had not killed thousands of Filipinos during the war. 

He was reacting to two U.S. lawmakers' January 5 letter urging the Trump administration to refuse to return the bells until the Philippine government "makes clear, measurable efforts to stop extrajudicial killings in their 'war on drugs.'"

"Two congressmen say that 'wag daw isauli kasi (do not return because of) the underpinnings of a sacrifice of a soldier," Duterte said in a speech in Cebu City Monday.

Although U.S. sees the Balangiga bells as a "veterans memorial object," Congressmen Randy Hultgren and Jim McGovern in their letter only cited the country's human rights situation as reason for their objection.

Duterte added, "Kung kinuha lang nila 'yon wala silang pinatay, okay lang sa akin. Ano ba naman 'yung bell? Eh 'di maggawa tayo nang bago."

[Translation: "If they seized the bells and did not kill anyone, it would have been okay for me. What are the bells for? We could just make new ones."]

"Pero ito pinatay nila mga bata, pinatay nila lahat. Ayaw nilang isauli, eh 'di 'wag," he added.

[Translation: "But they killed children, they killed everyone. If they do not want to return the bells, fine."]

Filipinos used the Balangiga bells as the signal to launch a surprise attack against American troops stationed in Balangiga town in Samar province on September 28, 1901.

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

During his second State of the Nation Address in July 2017, Duterte resurrected the century-old fight for the return of the Balangiga bells.

"Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage," he said.

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

As he pressed on the U.S. government to give the bells back, he also said he would rather be "friendly" to the Americans.

In its National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, the U.S. Congress said the bells will be "transferred" to the Philippines' care if it is "in the national security interests of the United States," and "appropriate steps have been taken to preserve the history of the veterans associated with the object."

But the country's human rights situation could have negative impact on U.S. security, said Hultgren and Jim McGovern, Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC), which has looked into the drug war.

They said over 7,000 drug suspects were killed "by police and vigilantes incited by Duterte's rhetoric."

"Your refusal to certify the return of these bells until he (Duterte) takes meaningful measures towards that end would be in the interest of our national security and our role as an internationally recognized leader in the promotion of human rights," the TLHRC chairmen said.

Around 4,000 suspects were killed in anti-drug operations since the start of the drug war in July 2016, government data showed. Malacañang has repeatedly said there are no state-sponsored killings and committed to investigate officers who violate and abuse their power.