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By Getsy Tiglao

Getsy Tiglao

No other Philippine President has done more to teach history to Filipinos than President Rodrigo Duterte. In his second State-of-the-Nation Address, Duterte confronted one of the most tragic episodes in our country’s history, the Balangiga massacre of thousands of Filipino civilians by invading American troops in 1901.

You could hear a pin drop when Duterte told the assembled crowd at the Batasang Pambansa the heartbreaking story of Balangiga in Eastern Samar, whose oppressed residents defended their town from the new foreign invaders, attacking the 9th US Infantry Regiment and killing 48 troops. Armed only with bolos compared with the rifles carried by the Americans, 28 Filipinos also died in that daring raid.

While Americans tried to portray the Filipinos’ initial act as the “massacre,” the real carnage was the monstrous retaliatory act by the United States military. As many as 50,000 Filipinos were killed by the Americans in Balangiga and in the rest of Samar, an indiscriminate killing spree after they were humiliated by poorly armed Filipino revolutionaries.

As Duterte related it: “US gunboats and patrols were sent to Balangiga, Samar, with the order to ‘make a desert of Balangiga’ and to reduce Samar Island into an island of ‘howling wilderness,’ where every male citizen from the age of ten and above, and capable of bearing arms, would be put to death.” The whole town was burned and everyone and everything was killed, including the carabaos.

This incident is rarely tackled in Philippine history courses. For Duterte to mention it in his second SONA shows his utter fearlessness and his burning desire to teach Filipinos about the hypocrisy of the US when it criticizes developing countries such as the Philippines over its human rights record.

Historical archives have detailed the punitive action undertaken by the Americans. Army General Jacob Hurd Smith issued this order: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me. Samar must be made a howling wilderness so that not even the birds could live there.”

Some historians have downplayed the incident and say that only 2,500 Filipinos were killed. What is undisputed is that the population of Samar fell drastically following the massacre and the loss of the male population. Over a century later, Balangiga and Samar continue to suffer with their low population and high poverty levels such that these areas became hotbeds of the communist insurgency.

The victorious American troops in Balangiga also seized the town’s church bells as war booty. These are still in the possession of the US military with one in their base in South Korea, and two others at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The US military considers them as spoils of war. But Philippine President Duterte now wants them back.

“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process… That is why I say today; give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said to thunderous applause.

Reverting to Filipino, Duterte made a direct appeal to the US military: “Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yun sa amin.” (Please return them. This is painful to us.)

US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim was in the audience when President Duterte narrated the Balangiga incident. We doubt that Ambassador Kim can do much to convince the proud US military establishment to give up its war booty.

But Duterte’s mini-history lessons will prove valuable in creating a new generation of Filipinos with an interest in how their country was built by revolutionaries, and how it was destroyed by foreign invaders. At the time that the US “bought” the Philippines from Spain for $20 million, a nascent Philippine Republic was already in existence but was ignored by the Western imperialists.

Learning history is a crucial element in nation-building. Without it the country’s citizens, especially the young, will be lost in the sea of globalization and no one will be left to steer the ship into a nationalist direction. Filipinos need these historical anchors to be able to transition successfully into a truly independent country.

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