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The Balangiga Bells and the right to self-determination

/ 05:12 AM December 22, 2018

This December, the Bells of Balangiga were finally seen and heard again by the people of Balangiga. This Eastern Samar town had only dreamed of that simple sound for over a century, ever since American troops spirited the bells away following one of the bloodiest massacres in Philippine history.

The return comes after more than 50 years of diplomatic struggle to bring these bells home. Filipino historian and Leyte native Rolando Borrinaga described this historic occasion as the “[L]ast issue of contention pertaining to the Philippine-American War, which may bring closure over that aspect of Philippine history.”

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Aside from being a symbolic gesture of healing and triumph, the return of the bells will aid not just the descendants of those killed in the Balangiga Massacre, but also the whole Filipino nation in exercising its right to self-determination.

Enshrined in the 1987 Constitution as a key consideration for the pursuance of an independent foreign policy, the right to self-determination has been recognized by the United Nations as a right of former colonies after the grant of their independence. By virtue of that right — also enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the implementing instrument of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — all people may freely pursue their social and cultural development, among others, and to regain, enjoy and enrich their cultural heritage.

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After World War II, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) denounced the removal of valuable objects from one country and their transfer to another due to colonial and foreign occupation. The UNGA considered that the restitution of cultural objects removed prior to the independence of a state was one initiative by which the right to self-determination can be exercised. It has also been suggested that the restitution of these objects can ease the damage suffered by countries as a result of such removal.

The return of the Balangiga Bells restores these objects’ accessibility to all Filipinos. The bravery of all those who sacrificed their lives for freedom is made more immediate through this tangible link. New generations of Filipinos will now be free to see, touch and even take selfies with the bells, as well as hear them. The accessibility of the bells will not only allow Filipinos to experience them first-hand, it will also give them the opportunity to extract new information and insight for developments in education, culture and history.

Rather than being on display as war booty in the US, they are now restored to their original function — to signal the start and end of the celebration of the Holy Mass. With the access to cultural properties like the Balangiga Bells, the Philippines will now be a step closer to realizing the nationalism and heroism that these bells symbolize. Whenever the bells ring, the people of Balangiga will remember the sacrifice of their ancestors; it’s a sound they may now share with their own children as they live in a free and independent Philippines once only imagined.

This is actually not the first time the Philippines welcomed home bells that were taken from a Philippine church by American troops during the Philippine-American War in the early 1900s. In 2012, the Diocese of Malolos, Bulacan, welcomed home two church bells measuring 3.5 inches wide. These bells were returned by the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha, Nebraska, after they were found among the possessions of the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Red Bluff, California, and were labeled as “Taken from the Church at Meycayauyan, Luczon [sic] Islands after bombardment by Utah Battery, March 29, 1899.”

Although the Meycauayan bells are not as massive as the Balangiga tower bells, the way they were found and voluntarily returned shows that, indeed, countless Filipino colonial cultural materials have been dispersed throughout the world, and hidden in storage rooms for centuries. But when they are found, the willingness to return them really depends on whose hands they are in.

The successful return of the Balangiga Bells is the best example of how constant clamor can bear fruit, even over the long term. Just as they were used as a signal by Filipino fighters, the bells can rally support for efforts to recover more of our cultural treasures dispersed overseas.

A cursory look at the websites of the Field Museum of Natural History in the United States, the National Anthropology Museum in Spain, and the Museé de l’Homme in Paris will show that tens of thousands of artifacts that originated from colonial Philippines are currently in their possession. These include ethnographic materials such as earthenware, wood carvings, beads, and even human and animal bones.

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During deliberations for the Cultural Heritage Law of 2009 (Republic Act No. 10066), legislators observed that many of our cultural materials remain on display in museums abroad. The late senator Edgardo Angara said he himself saw many Philippine artifacts obtained from underwater sites in Southern Palawan on display in the Newberry Museum in Chicago. Sen. Richard Gordon also mentioned that cannons from Grande Island were taken by American forces and brought to the Smithsonian Institute, despite calls for their return by the people of Olongapo.

On a global scale, the return of colonial cultural materials to their now-sovereign countries of origin is ongoing. In 2015, the Nusantara Museum in Delft, the Netherlands, offered to return 14,000 colonial artifacts to our neighbor Indonesia, which they had ruled as the Dutch East Indies. In March 2018, President Emmanuel Macron of France met with Patrice Talon, his counterpart in the former French possession of Benin. Macron said France will be returning all artifacts taken from Africa, following persistent calls from various ethnic groups in Nigeria. And just last month, The British Museum and France’s Quai Branly Museum declared they will be returning the Benin Bronzes — a collection of sculptures — to Benin and Nigeria after decades of pressure from the latter.

Currently, the Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 provides a section on “Regulating the Export, Transit and Repatriation of Cultural Property.” However, the law requires prior registration of items as “cultural property” in order for these provisions to be applicable. Thus, colonial cultural property, such as those that are not under the jurisdiction of the Philippines, can be seen as not covered by these rules.

Nonetheless, the law encourages the forging of international treaties for the importation and repatriation of cultural property that is of significant importance to the cultural heritage of contracting states. This can be interpreted as the only provision that can apply to property removed from the Philippines during the colonial era. In order to maximize the exercise of the right to self-determination through the repatriation of our cultural properties, more policy discussion and exploration should be done on this matter.

During the Senate hearings in 2009 prior to the passage of this law, the late senator Angara expressed hope that the government would be able to lobby for the return of historical items removed from the Philippines during its colonial period. As Balangiga and the nation mark the Balangiga bells’ homecoming, the hope and call for bringing home more of our cultural treasures remain as loud and clear as the bells.

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Kathleen Tantuico has a graduate diploma in archaeology and is a senior law student at the University of the Philippines College of Law. Her Juris Doctor Thesis (Supervised Legal Research Paper) on the repatriation of Filipino cultural property was awarded best paper in international law by the college.

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